“ALL IS TRUE” — 2½ stars — Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen; PG-13 (thematic elements, suggestive material and language); running time: 101 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Kenneth Branagh’s “All is True” is definitely a biopic of William Shakespeare, but it may not be the biopic you were hoping for … and frankly, its title is a bit misleading.
Set in the early 17th century — in the last years before Shakespeare’s death — “All is True” focuses on the brief stretch of time following the Bard’s unofficial retirement. The film opens as Shakespeare’s legendary Globe Theatre burns to the ground, sending the Bard (played by Branagh) home to Stratford-upon-Avon to reconcile with his neglected family.
All the years of writing and producing have alienated Shakespeare from his wife and two daughters, and though he believes he’s returning to build a garden in tribute to his deceased son Hamnet, in reality, he’s trying to mend old wounds with the rest of his family.
His wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) is still faithful but treats her husband as a literal guest, insisting he take the estate’s finest bedroom alone while she stays in her own quarters. Daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is married with a daughter, but her union with a crusading Puritan (Hadley Fraser) is tenuous since she seems to be having an affair with another local.
While Shakespeare's daughter Judith's (Kathryn Wilder) public life isn’t nearly as scandalous, her wounds run the deepest. Hamnet’s twin sister has never married, and Shakespeare is concerned — more for himself than her — that she’s rapidly turning into the town spinster. More importantly, Judith insists on blaming herself for her brother’s death.
“All is True” picks its way through these various issues, as Shakespeare uncovers a fuller understanding of his family relationships and tries to reconcile the deep pain and conflict he feels from the loss of his son. We also see a brief visit from the rowdy and aging Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who travels to Stratford-upon-Avon almost like a ghost from Shakespeare’s swinging London past.
The journey is thoughtful and has some insightful moments as it probes the depth of human relationships. But fans of Shakespeare might feel conflicted, if not resentful, by the fact that while several individual items from “All is True” are taken from the historical record, their interpretation, connection and true meaning is shaped by a generous dose of creative license from Branagh and writer Ben Elton.1 comment on this story
Some viewers might also be turned off by “All is True’s” persistent moodiness, which is enhanced by a slow, ponderous pace and several nighttime scenes in the estate lit only by a handful of candles. And while there are highlights in the performances and individual moments of insight as to the Bard’s process, many viewers might be left wishing Branagh had gone for a more thorough biopic of the famous writer that followed Shakespeare through his heyday rather than arrive in its aftermath.
It might be too much to expect a Shakespeare biopic to match the grandeur of its subject’s writing, and “All is True” works on its own as a portrait of a man coming to grips with his past. But considering the film’s subject, a different focus and more strictly faithful narrative might have delivered a more resonant experience.
Rating explained: “All is True” is rated PG-13 for some adult situations and sporadic profanity.