ALL IS TRUE, UK, 2018. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judy Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Sam Ellis, Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 101 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
Cole Porter’s breezy lyric advises us to “brush up your Shakespeare…”. This was to urge audiences to get to know the plays, their plots, famous lines which have become even more famous quotations. However, this film is an invitation to brush up on Shakespeare, the person, the family man, the character behind his plays. This is not an easy task because not so much is known about Shakespeare himself – and there have been various contenders as to the author of his plays, some suggesting Francis Bacon (with the joking remark about Charles Lamb’s book, that we cannot get bacon from Lamb’s Tales!) And there was that very entertaining film of 2011, Anonymous, working on the comic hypothesis that Shakespeare was a rather ignorant actor who took the public responsibility for the work done by the Earl of Oxford!.
With Kenneth Branagh playing Shakespeare, we know that we are in pretty safe hands. And the screenplay was written by Ben Elton, with his characteristic touches of the comic, but some wonderfully serious insights into Shakespeare and his family.
The title comes from the part title of The Tragedy of Henry VIII, the play that was being performed when the Globe Theatre burnt down in 1613. It led to Shakespeare returning home and this is the scope of this story, from 1613 to 1616 when he died.
The make-up artists did quite some work on Branagh’s face to make him look like Shakespeare, the touch of baldness and the longer flowing hair. But he sounds like Branagh and deliver speeches, with quotations from the plays and from the sonnets, like Branagh. And, extra value, Judi Dench plays 26 Hathaway. Many have found this something of a difficulty because Anne Hathaway in reality was only eight years older than her husband whereas Judi Dench is a quarter of a century older than Kenneth Branagh. However, as expected, Judi Dench gives a powerful performance.
There is an added bonus in a sequence where the Earl of Southampton visits Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, one of those intense conversations, and he is played by Ian McKellen.
Shakespeare was certainly not the perfect husband. He spent most of his time in London rather than at home with his family. According to the screenplay, this was compounded by his grief at the death of his son, Hamnet, at an early age. He was devoted to the boy, more than to his two sisters, Judith and Susanna, appreciating the poetry that the boy wrote – and, there is a great deal of intensity and powerful dramatic conflict in the discussion with Judith and with Anne about the origins of this poetry.
So, Shakespeare returns home, spends a lot of time working in the garden, in some ways making up for lost time in getting to know his daughters – with a manufactured scandal against his daughter, Susanna, and Judith, seemingly low self-image but speaking frankly with her father and her gaining confidence, even to her getting married.
Branagh directs and gets great performances from his cast, especially in the conversations with Judith (Kathryn Wilder). Which means that we are introduced to a different Shakespeare from what we might have imagined, admiring his genius – and there are many references to plays and sonnets throughout the film – but seeing his personal limitations, the strains with his wife (Anne Hathaway not being able to read but finally being taught and finally able to sign her name on the marriage certificate). And Shakespeare finally comes to some peace with the death of his son and the sadness of the circumstances.
In many ways, this is a somewhat low-key film, modest in its scope – but opening up a much wider world of human relationships, the stresses of a family where husband and father is one of the world’s greatest geniuses.
Roadshow Released 23rd May
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.