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D: Kenneth Branagh / 101m

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Hadley Fraser, Ian McKellen, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Sam Ellis, Gerard Horan

In 1613, following the destruction of the Globe theatre by fire, William Shakespeare (Branagh), having been away from his family for most of the last thirty years, decides to return to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and there live out the rest of his life. His arrival isn’t as well received as he would like: his wife, Anne (Dench), treats him as a guest, while his daughter, Judith (Wilder), is angry at his presumption that he can just come home and nothing should be said about it. Shakespeare finds himself finally mourning the death of his son Hamnet seventeen years before, but this brings out an unexpected animosity from Judith (who was Hamnet’s twin). Meanwhile, his eldest daughter, Susanna (Wilson), is trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan doctor John Hall (Fraser). She has an affair that nearly leads to public ruin, while after several disagreements with her father over what a woman is for, Judith pursues a relationship with local wine merchant, Tom Quiney (Hirst). There is scandal in their relationship as well, but before it can threaten to ruin Judith’s standing in the local community, a revelation about Hamnet causes Shakespeare’s memory of his son to be changed forever…

In using the alternative title for The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth, All Is True opens itself up for close inspection of its claim, and inevitably, is found wanting. As much as any historical biography can be “true”, Branagh’s take on Shakespeare’s final years (from a script by Ben Elton), labours under the necessity of finding enough material to fill in the blanks of what we know already – which isn’t that much. And so, we have a movie that makes a handful of educated guesses as to the events surrounding Shakespeare’s self-imposed retirement, but can’t quite come up with a reason for it. For the most part, the script is more concerned with the problems affecting his daughters, while the great man himself is reduced to being a secondary character, one seen creating a garden to honour his son’s memory, or indulging in melancholy conversations with the likes of visiting guests the Earl of Southampton (McKellen), and Ben Jonson (Horan). They’re odd scenes to have, as both see Shakespeare downplaying his genius while his visitors do their best to boost him up. And the scene with Southampton is there simply to support the theory that his sonnets were the product of a homosexual infatuation; all very possible but at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.

Indeed, the overall tone is one of overwhelming grief and sadness as Shakespeare attempts to deal with the loss of Hamnet. Whether seen in moments of contemplation, or through the verses he wrote before his death, Hamnet is the ghost that haunts everyone, and Shakespeare’s grief is tainted by the false recollections he has of him. This allows Branagh the director plenty of opportunities to let Branagh the actor look sad and distant, though mostly it makes him look as if he’s spotted something far off in the distance but can’t quite work out what it is. Still, it’s a good performance from Branagh, and he’s given able support from Dench and the rest of the cast, but in the end, Elton’s script rambles too often from subplot to subplot without ever connecting them in a cohesive, organic fashion. And Shakespeare himself, as a character, is only saved from being a complete dullard by virtue of Branagh’s efforts in front of the camera; there’s more fire and intensity from Wilder’s defiant Judith. A curious mix then of the effective and the banal, and tinged with soap opera moments that are out of place, it’s bolstered by Zac Nicholson’s naturalistic cinematography (all the night-time interiors used candlelight only), and James Merifield’s expressive production design.

Rating: 6/10 – not as definitive as it might have wanted to be, nor as engrossing as the subject matter should have merited, All Is True stumbles too often in its efforts to be intriguing, and features a seemingly endless array of establishing shots that seem designed to pad out the running time for no other reason than that they look pretty; anyone looking for an introduction to Shakespeare the man should look elsewhere, while those who are curious about his later years would do well to treat the movie as an interpretation of events rather than a retelling of them.