You could fill a First Folio with everything we don’t know about Shakespeare. Vanishingly few primary sources about Shakespeare exist, and by the time England’s poet laureate Nicholas Rowe got around to writing the first biography of him, Shakespeare’s mortal coil had been shuffled off for nearly a century. We have Shakespeare’s plays and poems, but only three pages written in his hand survive. What mostly remains from his life are business-related documents, like his will and his application for a coat of arms. Yet we still yearn to know him, to understand Shakespeare on a personal level, to see what kind of person could have written such brilliant works, again and again, for years. As All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s new film about the retirement years of Williams Shakespeare demonstrates however, the way we arrange our scraps of evidence into a picture of the Bard ultimately says more about us than it does about him.
All Is True tells the story of the time spanning from the burning down of the Globe Theatre during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII until his death a few years later. This allows Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton to imagine Shakespeare using what we know about his family and the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. We know that his eldest daughter, Susanna, was accused of cheating on her Puritan husband and contracting syphilis, likely as part of a power struggle for control of the local vicarage. We know that younger daughter Judith made a bad marriage to a local playboy named Thomas Quiney, who had knocked up another girl in town prior to their wedding. We know that Shakespeare altered his will to take Quiney out of it, and we know that Shakespeare made a late addition to that will leaving his “second best bed” to his wife, Anne. Was that cruelty? An inside joke? Something else? No one knows.
Out of this thread, All Is True weaves a portrait of a man haunted with grief for his dead son, who regretted nearly all of his life choices, and a man so obsessed with his family’s legacy that he nearly destroyed his actual family. It’s also a portrait of how that family has protected the Great Man from seeing the consequences of his actions for most of his adult life. They have done this because he is Great, but they have also done this because he is a Man, and they are women. Perhaps inspired by A Room of One’s Own, Elton’s screenplay places the gender dynamics of the Shakespeare household front and center. Shakespeare (Branagh with a prosthetic nose and hairline) is fixated on his dead son and only interested in his living daughters to the extent that they can provide him with male heirs. He wants to repair his relationship with Anne (Judi Dench), but at first he seems interested in her only to the extent that she can make his retirement comfortable.
This is a Shakespeare befitting our present moment, one in which we are trying to renegotiate our relationship to powerful men, the work they produce, and their misdeeds. Shakespeare’s wrongs aren’t in the same league as a Harvey Weinstein or a Bill Cosby, of course. The Shakespeare of All Is True is merely a crap husband and father. Yet the film tries not to let him off too easily. He thinks his genius, and the pursuit of it—which, not coincidentally, has made his family quite rich—is enough to excuse anything else he’s done in life. But by the end of the film, he comes to understand the cost of his greatness, and how that cost has been borne on the backs of those he claimed to love.
Personally, I’m drawn to this vision of Shakespeare, focused as it is on him as an actual man. My own sense of the real-life Shakespeare is that his life was likely dull. He wrote two plays a year, managed a thriving company that performed for as many as 3,000 people at a go, and oversaw his real estate concerns in Stratford. It’s hard to imagine him having much time for gallivanting around London, having raucous affairs, or working with the Catholic underground. Several of his peers did lead that kind of life, and they often died young and penniless. As one character puts it in All Is True, Shakespeare’s life seems, by comparison, well, rather small.
If only such smallness had actually shaped the screenplay of All Is True! Alas, rather than model itself on Shakespeare’s own history plays, which carefully select and structure events with an eye toward plot and theme, All Is True is an overstuffed mess. The film moves episodically through major plot developments, often in very brief scenes in which each character says only exactly what is needed to either advance the plot or hit a highly emotional note. With the exception of a few scenes that are allowed to stretch and breathe, watching All Is True often feels like you’re viewing an extremely long recap of what you’ve missed in the previous week’s episode of a beloved TV show. The whole intrigue with Susanna and her possible fornication and syphilis, a story which could be its own movie, develops, reaches climax, and resolves in around 15 minutes—only to followed by another dramatic situation that arises, climaxes, and resolves within a self-contained scene or two.
On top of all this it lays on the fan service so thick you might think you’re watching a Shakespeare-themed version of Solo: A Star Wars Story. All Is True wants not only to show you the final couple of years of Shakespeare’s life but also to weigh in on whether or not the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) is the subject of the Sonnets (he is) and whether or not he and Will slept together (they didn’t, despite Will’s great desire to). While Bardolators (not to be confused with the Bardigang) can laugh at in-jokes like Shakespeare shouting, “I wish I had poached your deer,” to Sir Thomas Lucy, cramming this much plot incident, biographical interpretation, and winking references into one movie is more than it, or we, can bear.
What’s supposed to keep us and the film going through all of this is Shakespeare’s mourning of his dead son, Hamnet. The afterlife of Shakespeare’s only son, who died in 1596 at age 11, is an encapsulation of the problem of Shakespeare biography in miniature. Of all of Shakespeare’s relatives, we know the least about poor Hamnet, but the phonetic similarity between Hamnet and Hamlet has led some Shakespeareans to assume the boy had a central importance in the work and psyche of his father. He may very well have. Or not! After all, the story of Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark was derived from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth. It’s yet another moment of ambiguity in the historical record, just as John Shakespeare—Will’s father who died the year Hamlet was completed—may have been a terrible businessman whose shameful profligacy drove Will to London, or a successful businessman who sent Will to London to pursue his business interests there.
Will spends much of the movie weeping, or raging, or sitting with a thousand-yard stare, contemplating his dead son. Yet All Is True isn’t quite sure what to make of its own choice in this regard. Hamnet’s death gives Shakespeare his arc and chugs us along from revelation to revelation. But it is also absurd to depict a man as so paralyzed by grief 20 years after his son’s demise in a country as death-drenched as England was in the early 17th century. Is a sexist Will really just grieving the loss of a male heir? Or are we meant to take it seriously? All Is True can’t quite figure this out, resorting instead to having Shakespeare’s wife and daughters constantly point out how peculiar all this is, as if self-awareness on the screenplay’s part can substitute for making a clear choice. Hamnet’s central importance to film is ultimately an act of transference. We want to be able to talk to him, so Will does, too. We want to solve the mystery of who he really was, so Will is given a mystery about him to solve.
Despite all of this, All Is True is too peculiar and too imbued with love to simply set aside. Kenneth Branagh donning a bald-cap and fake nose to play Shakespeare is an idea so ridiculous only Branagh would’ve attempted it. But only Kenneth Branagh could also manage to make any of the resulting film work. With his cheeseball sensibility and palpable egomania, Branagh is an easy director to mock. There’s one slow-motion shot of Shakespeare running to the banks of a river in the early evening, his shoulder-length hair fluttering majestically, that is unintentionally hilarious, for example. Yet the film might still move you to tears, and both impulses come from the same place: Branagh’s exuberant, overwhelming, extraordinary sincerity as a filmmaker, a style he once referred to enthusiastically as swimming in a river of ham.
Branagh’s best films, the ones made during the first decade of his movie career, all feel like labors of love. Whether it’s love of the protagonist (Henry V) or film noir and classic Hollywood melodrama (Dead Again), or his then-wife Emma Thompson (Much Ado About Nothing), there’s an infectious quality to Branagh’s passions. All Is True does not rank alongside those films, but it feels like each frame is lit by how utterly besotted Branagh is with Shakespeare’s words and life.
The result is his most interestingly and beautifully shot film. The opening image of the Globe burning on the banks of the Thames is like a Turner painting, and nearly every scene has some fascinating staging, or odd angle, or sumptuous bit of nature photography. Many of the takes are surprisingly long, lending an air of theatricality to the whole affair, without it ever seeming too stagey. And there are worse things in this hard life of ours than hearing Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen recite Shakespeare at each other. All Is True does not work as a film, but as a memorial to a writer whose shadow we are still working in today, and an expression of yearning to know who he really was, it has an odd vitality that cannot be completely dismissed.