Shakespeare the post-modern poet? All is true. Kenneth Branagh knows the Bard better than most. Arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of our age, he’s certainly created the most cinematic representations of the Swan of Avon’s work. Whether as histories, comedies, musicals or whimsicals, he’s done the lot. In All is True he plays the man himself and explores Shakespeare’s ambiguities of text and life.
During a performance of Henry VIII - dubbed All is True – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burns to the ground. As the opening titles tell us, he never wrote another play. And so, the renowned author returns home to Stratford to a wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), he’s hardly seen in 20 years and to two daughters he barely knows. Reconnecting with family is as hard as harrowing his new garden plot. But it’s his unresolved grief for his son Hamnet – who died, says Anne, ‘of the plague’ - that sparks a tinderbox of truth and lies.
All is True is a cipher of a title. Taking the blanks of Shakespeare’s biography, it weaves truths from conjecture, much as Shakespeare did, snippets of legend spun forth into tales of the human condition. So here: Shakespeare had a son who died young, daughters who faced local scandals: how so? Who was the ‘dark lady’ for whom Shakespeare wrote sonnets? And just why did Shakespeare bequeath Anne his ‘second best bed’? Scripted by Ben Elton (Branagh’s Much Ado movie and writer of TV’s Upstart Crow), the film was Branagh’s idea. All is True is a wink-wink joke: none of the main drama is true, in fact. But it’s certainly true in spirit.
Every character is robust, well-rounded and given full rein. From Judi Dench’s grounded, illiterate wife - ‘you were hardly here; to us you’re a guest’ – to his daughters, Kathryn Wilder’s simmering, resentful Judith and Lydia Wilson’s stiflingly married Susanna, every emotion, each person's story is true… for them. It’s a generous approach. So far, so stagey? Not so.
Anyone familiar with Branagh’s expansive work should know how cinematic it is. From his dark-hued Henry V to the sun-drenched Much Ado About Nothing, from the palatial Hamlet to the romantically red Love’s Labour’s Lost, Branagh has used colour, scope and movement like a maestro. No surprise that Marvel studios bagged him to helm the superhero success Thor. And with All is True the visuals drip with effect.
In inky-dark rooms candles shine on wood-panelled walls. Opened-out vistas – Stratford nestling in a valley – share the screen with portrait-close-ups. Editing with a lush sense of poetry and meaning, Branagh creates depth in the trigonometry of a fireside family flare-up; and generates geometry as a moment of linear proximity in the garden is broken up by bad news. And it could be called ‘All is Tree’ – because every key character is seen, at some point, starkly central with a huge tree behind them. We’re all unique, organic, growing our own way, true as a tree.
Beautiful to look at, it’s a joy of sound too. Branagh could speak the back of a cereal packet and make it sing. His trademark naturalism is easy on the ear, contrasting with his explosive daughter Judith; and with Dench’s country drawl, drenched with earthy common sense. And in a fabulous face-off with the Earl of Southampton (the ‘dark lady’?), Branagh and Ian McKellen trade superb versions of Sonnet 29. It’s not simply a Heat-like De Niro and Pacino moment. Branagh sears it with unrequited love on one side, respect and admiration on the other. Probably not true in fact. But undeniable in delivery.
And while there’s a sweetly insistent score from Branagh-regular Patrick Doyle, which ups the sentimentality, a not unwelcome Branagh trait, there’s a lovely use of silence and natural sound to leaven it.
It’s funny too. Nodding to Shakespeare in Love, a lesser film, there’s ‘comedy, love and a bit with a dog', as Shakespeare crisscrosses the screen with his playful family pet. Faced with a would-be writer keen for advice - ‘Mr Shakespeare, I don’t want to pester you’ – the Bard brusquely replies: ‘Excellent news. Cheerio’.
When Shakespeare can’t remember a line of his own poetry Anne laughingly fills it in. It was a fluff, Branagh forgetting the line on set and Dench mocking him for it, but it works and Branagh kept it in. It’s indicative of a cast that’s comfortable with each other and of a director willing to capture the moment.
All is True is a mercurial movie. Rooted in the earthiness of soil and tree, it’s fanciful too, Shakespeare’s son appearing to him as ghost or a dream. It has the language of land and spirit. And when it takes flight – as it does with Kathryn Wilder’s wildfire way with words; and with Branagh’s single-take, slow-burn blow-up – it soars.