REVIEW: Shakespeare biopic All Is True

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Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen star in All Is True

The unbelievable truth

All is True, the new Shakespeare film, was released on 8th February

All is True is, in equal measure, both brilliant and troubling.

Here in Stratford we grub around, looking for clues about our greatest citizen William Shakespeare’s life. We take the tiniest scraps of information, the hints, maybes and what-ifs and endlessly try to piece together the puzzle of the great man’s life and origin of his genius.

For this biopic, which looks at Shakespeare’s retirement years in Stratford, scriptwriter Ben Elton and director/actor Kenneth Branagh have taken all the wonky jigsaw pieces and fashioned them together with glitter glue and sticky tape to make a compelling story well worth the watching.

Branagh is a great Shakespearian and this is undoubtedly a devotional endeavour. Great care has been taken in the film’s research. Obviously both Branagh and Elton, writer of the hilarious Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow, already knew more than most about the playwright’s life, but for this they consulted the archives and knowledgeable boffins at Stratford’s Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to give authenticity to the work. As described in last month’s Focus magazine, the duo weave a story around the ‘truths’ that can be gleaned from the artefacts and documents held by the trust.

The plot goes something like this: after the Globe burns down in 1613 (fact) Shakespeare returns to Stratford (fact) and retires from writing (fact). He is practically a stranger to his family (erm…) and must rediscover his relationship with his wife Anne (Judi Dench brilliantly subtle and wry, if a surprise choice, given how much older than Branagh she is) and daughter Judith (a spirited performance from Kathryn Wilder).

Every story needs dramatic tension and that’s when the tricky ‘poetic licence’ bits sneak in. As he was away when Hamnet, Judith’s twin, died aged 11 (fact), Shakespeare essentially experiences delayed grief. It is during this bereavement journey that he learns some uncomfortable ‘truths’ (eg, actually made up bits by Elton/Branagh – are you keeping up?). This includes how Hamnet really died. His departure from the world is not due to the plague as is generally assumed — and here as Shakespeare is first led to believe —but, without wanting to plot-spoil, bizarrely echoes a death in one of the Bard’s more famous plays). The fact that when Hamnet died in 1596 there were no other cases of plague reported in Stratford is used to support this revisionist version of his possible — although improbable — death.

Elsewhere in the story the documented court cases accusing Judith and her sister Susannah of adultery are used to make assumptions about their marriages. And the fact that Judith wrote her initials to witness the sale of a house in 1611 supposes she was not only haven literate but a gifted poet (erm…).

Besides Branagh’s slightly comical Cyrano de Bergerac prosthetic (just how big was the Bard’s hooter?!) his performance as Shakespeare is brilliant: touching and rounded, it satisfies that longing to see the Bard in the flesh wonderfully. And of course hearing Ian McKellen (Earl of Southampton) and Judi deliver the often clever script and snatches of Shakespeare’s verse is a pure delight. The film, shot by candlelight and at Dorney Court, a 15th-century manor house near Windsor Castle, looks convincing and feels authentic.

So what are the ‘buts’? I have two. Firstly the film feels a bit dreary. I get that the mood is dictated by the difficulties of retiring from a fabulous career, family disharmony, death and the hardness of the times – but this is no Shakespeare in Love, it’s a slow, smouldering slightly depressing burn.

Secondly, and perhaps more overwhelmingly, the whole business of extrapolating fiction from fact is troublesome and often uncomfortable. It puts the viewer, especially Stratfordians and Shakespeare buffs, in the position of permanently assessing how likely Elton and Branagh’s suppositions are. It’s like watching war films with your granddad: ‘that’s not how you hold a machine gun!’, ‘a colour sergeant has three stripes!’, etc.

I found myself cringing at the clumsiness of the story too – like when Margaret Wheeler dies in childbirth (a true fact, and she is believed to have been carrying Judith’s husband’s child) the news is delivered by Susannah’s husband, Dr John Hall – who has just come from the deathbed and is soaked dramatically with blood – just as Judith is telling her parents of her own baby news. It is a clunky scene more worthy of EastEnders.

So all may not be true and a touch cringey at times, but All is True is definitely worth a look, just try and keep the tutting to a minimum.