ALL IS TRUE – movie review

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Ben Elton
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 4/11/19
Opens: May 10, 2019

Shakespeare has been mutilating college students’ GPA for decades, maybe centuries, as English majors, perfectly fine at interpreting Byron, Shelley and Keats, are at a loss in parsing the Bard’s 17th century English. Still, the scholars do remember “to be or not to be” but what they would enjoy more is one of the quotes in Kenneth Branagh’s film “All is True.” When a radical Puritan (these were the Christian right types in England) razzes Shakespeare, condemning one of his daughters for alleged pre-marital pregnancy and his wife for illiteracy, he replies, “There is more wisdom in Anne’s shit than in your entire body.”

Branagh, who directs and takes on the principal role in “All is True,” is more acquainted with Shakespeare than any other actor, given especially his ability to memorize all the lines of the title characters in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” playing the key role Iago in “Othello,” Berowne in “Love’s Labour Lost,” and Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing” among other treasures, and is the ideal person for this speculative treatment of Shakespeare’s final three years. As written by Ben Elton, known for TV episodes like “The Thin Blue Line” and “Upstart Crow,” William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagah) is demoralized when the Globe Theatre burns to the ground, the result of a misplaced cannon shot. Having spent most of his adult life in London, leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), and his young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) to fend for themselves, he now returns to Stratford-upon-Avon as a retired man with no ambition to write further.

Not a lot is known about Shakespeare the man much less how he spent his final three years, but we do get writer Ben Elton’s insights based on what we know of the customs and culture of England at the time. Shakespeare cannot understand why his allegedly beautiful daughter Judith is hanging around, a spinster, and pressures her to find a guy and get out of the house—which, by the way, is a spacious mansion, testament to the fact that Will did not have to wait for his own death to be a financial success. Most of all, though, he mourns Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven, and while Shakespeare is doing some gardening to provide his lost son with a respectable piece of land around his grave, he questions whether Hamnet died of the plague as his wife Anne repeatedly assures him. Yet there is some mystery surrounding the death. Hamnet’s twin sister Judith is aware that all is not what it seems, ultimately revealing the truth of the boy’s demise.

In the movie’s most memorable volley of talk, Shakespeare plays host to the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who looks foppish with long blond hair, as the two recount with more than a hint that there may be truth about Shakespeare’s sonnets: that they were written not to a woman or to women in general but to the playwright’s male lover. McKellen is in his element quoting his favorite lines from the sonnets.

There is more than a hint of feminism in this take of the writer’s final years. Daughter Judith, who finally does tie the knot, loses self-control, accusing her father of favoring the boy Hamnet, elaborating on the jealousy she feels, thinking that if one of the two children msut die, her father would prefer that it be Judith. Further, though Shakespeare proclaims that he’d had no problem if women played their parts in his plays, but the society would not condone such women’s liberation.

There are fine performances all around as you’d expect from Shakespearean actors like McKellen and Branagh, with interesting photography that takes advantage of the fact that electricity had not been harnessed. Zac Nicholson photographs indoor scenes in natural light from the fireplace, which makes you realize how difficult it must have been for the masses of people—those without Shakespeare’s financial as well as critical success—to function. This is art-house fare as you would expect from a studio with the integrity of Sony Pictures Classics, with little of the fireworks of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 “Julius Caesar” or Baz Luhrman’s modernized 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet.”

101 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B