The year is 1613, Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre burns to the ground, and devastated, Shakespeare returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death of his only son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), he struggles to mend the broken relationships with his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and their daughters. In so doing, he is ruthlessly forced to examine his own failings as husband and father, but his very personal search for the truth uncovers secrets and lies within a family at war…
Written by Ben Elton and directed by Kenneth Branagh, All Is True opens with fire: the Globe is in flames, burning into nothingness. The potent and most tangible symbol for all that is Shakespeare has been reduced to ashes. It is an apt beginning, given that this film is so obsessed with endings and death.
Based on Shakespeare’s retirement, this surprisingly witty biopic examines the final period of the Bard’s life.
Shortly after his livelihood has gone up in flames, Shakespeare (portrayed by Branagh, of course) returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon to live out the rest of his days. But home is where his wife and daughters, furious at his extended absence, await him. Home is where he must finally confront the loss of his son, Hamnet, who tragically died at the age of 11. Home is where he must navigate the mire of scandal surrounding his family. Above all else, though, home is where he is not a celebrated genius-come-hero, but simply a man… and a man who seems to fall short in many, many ways, at that.
Upon his arrival, Shakespeare is promptly banished to the guest room by his wife Anne, played with mastery and poise by Judi Dench. At 84, misguided critics have made a great deal of noise about the fact the actress is 27 years older than her real-life counterpart - but Dench is a revelation, giving us a Ms Hathaway who emotionally and perceptively outshines her husband, often completely flooring him with her cold, caustic wit. Together, Dench and Branagh are the perfect pairing, and entirely convincing as a couple whose marriage has been ravaged by the strain of distance, time and then some.
Elsewhere, Shakespeare’s seething “spinster” daughter Judith (played by a truly captivating Kathryn Wilder) resents him for his plans to build a garden in honour of her late twin, Hamnet. Coldly reminding him of the fact he failed to attend his son’s funeral when he actually died some 17 years ago, Judith tells her father: “We have to mourn him as if his grave was freshly dug, because you found the time to mourn.”
As the plot thickens, though, Judith - much like her sister, Susanna (Lydia Wilson) proves herself disturbingly capable of slipping between proud-wounded-rebel into the 17th century submissive arm-candy role so expected of women at the time. However, her reasons for doing so later prove to be entirely honourable, albeit steeped in tragic misdirection.
Throughout all of this, Branagh is beyond brilliant. Yes, his Shakespeare may be narcissistic and egotistic at times (“Through my genius, I’ve brought fame and fortune to this house”), but he is, for the most part, weary, wretched and overtly meek. In short, Branagh offers up a performance entirely unlike anything of his we have seen before - and it is mesmerising.
The performances are the standout stars of this film, but it would be amiss not to mention the cinematography. Every single shot brings us idyllic images of pure, unadulterated sunlight and open skies framing colourful, bountiful trees, juxtaposed by the suffocating intensity of pitch black rooms, made visible only by nuggets of candlelight. The Academy may have deemed cinematography unworthy of screentime at this year’s awards show, but Zac Nicholson’s work here is revelatory in its attention to detail, and really must be applauded.
All Is True is, by no stretch of the imagination, as epic as Branagh’s 1996 production of Hamlet. However, it masterfully juggles the themes of love, loss and forgiveness. For to forgive is to be set free and, ultimately, this film is about one man’s ability to forgive himself and to seek forgiveness from those loved ones he has wronged in the past. The fact that, rather ironically, the details of this tale are not ‘all true’, given the missing details of Shakespeare’s life, is of no consequence here. And whether Shakespeare actually died a forgiven and a free man, is for all to speculate, without judgment.
It is this message that Branagh and Elton, together with their impressive cast, masterfully achieve - taking our mind’s eye away from Shakespeare’s many celebrated works and considering who Shakespeare the man (who has lived “the smallest life”) might well have been. And, in doing so, they force us to consider who we, as women and men, ought to be.
All Is True is out in cinemas now.
Kemi J Williams
Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.
Recommended by Kemi J Williams
A Private War will leave you wanting to know more about its real-life war reporter
The Favourite is unlike any period drama you’ve ever seen before
Your definitive feminist guide to 2019’s must-see movies
“Why going to the cinema alone is my favourite form of self-care”
Colette is a pacey period drama with thoroughly modern themes