This fictional examination of the Bard’s latter years will be appreciated by the most ardent supporters of the highly celebrated playwright despite an episodic, sluggish feel replete with much conversation.
All Is True comes from Sir Kenneth Branagh (also a producer) who has spent much of his professional life exploring William Shakespeare’s oeuvre starting with Henry V (with two Oscar nods); he now fills his shoes with some prosthetics that gives him a Ben Kingsley look or others in the showbiz entertainment fields depending on your vantage point. Scenarist Ben Elton and Branagh may not really be in sync if an imaginative, speculative rendering is desired with a little more of an insider’s canniness. Nevertheless, some of the characters deliver on aspects of their personalities.
The impetus of the title comes from what was running at the Globe Theatre in 1613 when a cannon misfired leaving the treasured facility in ruins. Branagh’s Will finally gets to garden and grieve for his long-gone son Hamnet (seen in wraith form as Sam Ellis) from the plague. His frosty wife Anne Hathaway, a stolid if soulful Judi Dench (much more than eight years his senior), remands him to the guest room at their manse (his prosperity from the stage has provided well for them). The loss of Hamnet (an inspiration for Hamlet with instead the ghost of a dead father?), reveals the dysfunctional nature of his family, notably his daughters — spinster, skeptical, unmarried Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and scandalous Susanna (Lydia Wilson) wed to a stern Puritan. It’s difficult for a retired middle-ager to cope with reality while wanting his lineage to continue.
So, Elton goes for maxims from the prose and poetry/sonnets as Branagh is hardly attempting a hagiography with meaning of ideas and emotions hinging the validity of their basis. To help enhance the characters’ internal issues a natural, rich color scheme with rustic designing is employed. Dench responds well enough given the approach of women of the time often unfairly treated connecting into confrontational, if occasionally lighter badinage. An element of feminism is felt from the embodiment of Wilson, and, especially, Wilder, as Judith’s situation will change and Will won’t neglect Susanna in time of need.
Perhaps the assertive assiduousness dilutes the dramatic payoff with Will’s despair and heritage in how this account is built to suit the quietly artistic genius, hardly the reveling type which represented many of his now-deceased peers. While All Is True often relies on a down-to-earth, fractured narrative drive, it offers much tantalizing twinkle in a segment that comments on class inequality and suggestiveness for releasing inhibitions and inspirations. The appearance of a blondish Earl of Southington lets a game Sir Ian McKellan acerbically volley with Branagh notably in Sonnet 29 to enliven a predominantly dolorous and stodgy return to Stratford-at-Avon.