Kenneth Branagh furthers his adoration for William Shakespeare by directing and starring in this free-wheeling biopic of the Bard’s final years.
It should be noted from the outset that All is True, the latest chapter in Kenneth Branagh’s love affair with William Shakespeare and his first chance to play the Bard, that historical accuracy is not an element one would describe as particularly important to the film. This is not to say that screenwriter Ben Elton has replicated his Shakespeare as sitcom Upstart Crow. Elton has made efforts to make this version of Shakespeare’s life, focused on his last three years, feel period appropriate in a way he was not concerned with in Crow. The inaccuracies more concern events and their sequencing.
Instead of delivering a history lesson, though, Elton is aiming for the heart of the matter. He wants to invoke the feelings, not a rote recitation, of Shakespeare’s final years and on that score, Elton seems quite successful.
As it is an Elton script it is, at times, all kinds of unsubtle. His version of Shakespeare, played deftly with surprising restraint by Branagh, is endlessly fond of being self-referential. If you are the kind of person who groaned at the end of Shakespeare in Love with its line directly reference a famous play, well, this may prove trying at times.
However, rest assured Elton has made Shakespeare a self-involved self-promoter who has become increasingly self-obsessed with his legacy as he feels the lights going dimmer. The movie is structured such that it surrounds the Bard with a certain level of hero worship while endlessly having the man himself puncture it with the reality of himself: a negligent husband and father, an unrepentant misogynist, and, often, something of a crushing bore.
In refusing to go theatrical but for one season where he spews all his frustration out on a neighbor, Branagh leaves space for his co-stars to drink deeply of the remaining oxygen. Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellan) proves the most willing to rise to the occasion. He devours the scenery in his short time on-screen and it creates the single best moment in the film. Every element the filmmakers are going for seem to come together perfectly for that seven-minute event and the viewer gets a mini-class in staging, lighting, writing, and acting.
He wants to invoke the feelings, not a rote recitation, of Shakespeare’s final years and on that score, Elton seems quite successful.
Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) also benefits from the choice to let the supporting players shine. She is not anachronistic enough to be unaware of society’s treatment of women in the 1600s, but she nonetheless refusing to be a mere doormat of the time period. She is sharp and very much over her husband, a man who has seemingly only returned to her because his precious playhouse is but a smoking crater and his ever more precious talent has evidently followed suit.
The film itself is a beautiful document, lush and colorful. It makes excellent use of light throughout, especially when they opt for candle and natural lighting to ground the action in the time period.
Due to this, the general state of Branagh’s prosthetics is particularly disappointing and distracting. To have such an excellent grasp of framing and the look of the image and to still overlook that is maddening. The makeup work is not so bad that you can literally see the seams but it does verge closely at times. One wishes that Branagh had followed his screenwriter’s direction and attempted to evoke the “feel” of Shakespeare rather than to slavishly attempt to recreate his appearance. Perhaps then we would have avoided such underwhelming fake noses and wigs.
All is True ultimately does not rank up with Branagh’s best Shakespeare works on either side of the camera. However, as a depiction of a towering historical figure as a mild man facing a lifetime of mistakes, True has its appeals. See it for Elton’s swift script, the film’s beautiful look, and McKellan making a meal of his time on screen.