“All Is True” is almost all a lie.
Very little is known about what happened to William Shakespeare between 1613, when his beloved Globe Theater burned down during a production of his last play “Henry VIII,” and 1616, when he died at his home in Stratford.
“All Is True” takes considerable poetic license in dramatizing those years, starring Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the mortal Bard, retired from the theater, who returns to reckon with unfinished business as a neglectful husband and father. But “Macbeth” and “King Lear” didn’t exactly stick to the historical record either, and Ben Elton’s speculative screenplay finds poignancy and wit in this unauthorized and unexpected portrait of Shakespeare.
With a prosthetic nose and flowing locks, Branagh looks a lot like Ben Kingsley as Shakespeare. He plays him as a man used to being the center of attention, of commanding every room he walks into. When he professes modesty, it seems almost certainly false.
But that self-image is quickly punctured back home at Stratford-on-Avon, where his estranged wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) welcomes him more as a houseguest than a husband. Anne was much older than Will, and illiterate, underscoring how distant her life was from his life of letters.
He barely knows his two daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), and they resent him for his absence. We also learn that there was a son, Hamnet, who died when he was 11. It’s him that Shakespeare clearly had the most affection for, particularly since Hamnet seemed to have a gift for writing as well. Hamnet haunts his thoughts and dreams, sometimes literally.
Claiming to be finished with writing, Shakespeare devotes his days to planting a garden to commemorate his son. But as he digs up the soil, secrets are also unearthed that make him think differently about the family he left behind, and start accepting his responsibility for having left them behind.
“All Is True” seems determined not to be a gauzy “Great Man” biopic, and quickly cuts Shakespeare down to size. Branagh’s unorthodox shooting style sometimes does this literally, placing Shakespeare in the background and other characters in the foreground, literally diminishing the Bard. Branagh’s other go-to shot is to shoot the actors from below — perhaps meant to be a grave’s eye view of Shakespeare in his final years.
Elton, who created the cheeky British comedy “Blackadder,” isn’t much concerned with historical rigor, and occasionally Branagh will let loose with a sharp, contemporary-sounding line. And the entire arc of the film, of a patriarch learning to humble himself before the women in his life, is very modern and un-Elizabethan.
Branagh’s love affair with Shakespeare has lasted since the start of his career, including movie adaptations of “Henry V,” “Hamlet" and three other plays. Perhaps no one else has the standing to tweak Shakespeare’s image the way he does in “All is True,” because he does so from a place of affection and admiration for a sometimes less-than-admirable man.
But let’s hope that “All Is True” doesn’t represent the last of his excursions into the world of William Shakespeare. Someday, we’ll need his King Lear.