Sony Pictures Classics | Release Date: December 21, 2018
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Bertaut1Feb 21, 2019
A strangely formless and insubstantial love-letter to Shakespeare

Directed, produced by, and starring Kenneth Branagh, All Is True is a pleasant enough film obviously born from great reverence, and, unsurprisingly, brilliantly acted, but is
A strangely formless and insubstantial love-letter to Shakespeare

Directed, produced by, and starring Kenneth Branagh, All Is True is a pleasant enough film obviously born from great reverence, and, unsurprisingly, brilliantly acted, but is also a curiously formless piece of work, clumsily episodic in structure, and relatively free of conflict, focusing instead on non-incident and trees silhouetted against picturesque sunsets. By the very nature of the years during which it takes place (1613-1616), Ben Elton's screenplay is full of interpolations and suppositions, some of which are interesting, but many of which don't work, and whilst All Is True is perfectly fine, it's also perfectly forgettable.

Possibly a palette-cleanser for Branagh, allowing him to return to the familiarity of Shakespeare, after several years working on relatively impersonal projects, and with two blockbusters on the way, All Is True begins on June 29, 1613, as Shakespeare (Branagh) watches the Globe Theatre burn to the ground. Devastated, he retires to Stratford. Coldly received by his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and youngest daughter, Judith (a superb Kathryn Wilder), he gets a slightly better welcome from his eldest, Susanna (Lydia Wilson). Still mourning the death of Judith's twin, Hamnet (Sam Ellis), his only son, who died from plague aged 11 in 1596, Shakespeare decides to grow a garden to honour his memory. However, he must also try to deal with Judith's hatred for him, stemming from her conviction that he believes the wrong twin died.

Easily the best scene in the film, involves Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). Identifying him as the "fair youth" to whom Shakespeare addresses the first 126 sonnets, Shakespeare quotes in its entirety Sonnet 29, with Branagh reading it as an agonised ode to an impossible love. He then alludes to the fact he'd always hoped Southampton may have one day reciprocated his love, to which Southampton reacts sternly, telling him, "you forget yourself, Will, it is not your place to love me". Getting up to leave, Southampton then also recites Sonnet 29, with McKellen's intonation changing it into a celebration of the power of art to transcend such foolish distractions as love. It's a beautifully shot, incredibly well acted, and nuanced scene.

Aesthetically, cinematographer Zac Nicholson (working with Branagh for the first time) captures the sincerity and verisimilitude common to the visual design of every Branagh film. The nighttime compositions are particularly striking, often lit with only practical candles, making use of shallow focus and strong contrast as characters huddle together in narrow shafts of light. Adding to the effect is Branagh's unexpected, but not unwelcome, use of gentle Dutch angles to underscore moments of heightened tension.

However, there are considerable problems. First and foremost is the script, which has a strangely formless structure, derived from an episodic organisational principal, with scene after scene addressing one and only one issue at a time, ensuring each issue is cleared before moving onto the next. Scenes often involve the characters saying only what is necessary to get to the next scene, with little room to breathe, almost as if we're watching a "previously on" montage of a TV show.

Another issue with the script is its use of 21st-century gender politics. Every woman around Shakespeare is a protofeminist, each of them more progressive (in the modern sense of the term) than him, and so the film builds to the moment when he comes to scold himself for his misogyny, boldly embracing the idea of gender equality. It's a poor attempt to graft contemporary ideology onto an epoch that simply had different beliefs. It's one thing to say Shakespeare may have been in been in favour of the female parts being played by women. It's something else entirely to say that by the end of his life, he was a feminist, and would eagerly have burnt his bra.

The casting is also problematic. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Dench and McKellen as much as the next man, but that doesn't change the fact that they are both badly miscast. Both play their characters as elderly, but in 1613-1616, Anne (played by the 84-year-old Dench) was 57-60, and Southampton (played by the 79-year-old McKellen) was only 40-43. Additionally, Anne was six years older than Shakespeare, but Dench is 26 years older than Branagh, and it shows.

As a Kenneth Branagh fan (and a fan of Ben Elton's wonderfully irreverent comedy UpStart Crow), I was disappointed with All Is True. Some elements unquestionably work; the Southampton scene, Shakespeare's struggle to reconcile his one-of-kind genius with the personal cost of that genius for both himself and others, Judith's resentment of Hamnet, the night-time photography. But a hell of a lot doesn't work. It's an inoffensive and perfectly fine film, but given the director and the subject, it could, and should, have been so much more.
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