Starring Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG
All Is True begins at the end. The end, that is, of William Shakespeare’s writing career, after his Globe Theatre burned down, thanks to an errant cannonball that ignited the roof during a performance of his Henry VIII—thus informing everyone just how expensive special effects could be.
The little-remembered play’s alternate title was All Is True, giving director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton (who also acted in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing) sardonic cover for a conjectural stab at the Bard of Avon’s last few years, before his 1616 death days before his 52nd birthday. The director, in putty nose and bald-pated wig, plays Willie with the shakes, angling for hospitality from his wife, Anne Hathaway. She’s not played by her namesake but by Judi Dench, 26 years Branagh’s senior, rather than the eight Anne actually had on Will.
That’s just one indication that everything doesn’t smell fresh in the state of Denmark. Another is the subject’s obsession with the death of his son, Hamnet (yep), here appearing as Hamnet’s Ghost, the better to give the tale a feminist twist, with the late lad’s twin sister, Judith (Kathryn Wilder), vying for Daddy’s respect. Another daughter (Lydia Wilson) is married to a dreary Puritan who doesn’t believe in such frivolities as plays and poems.
Mostly located in the lush Stratford area, the film is so beautifully shot, with Vermeer window light, meticulous detail, and gorgeous greenery, it would be enough just to see how people lived and died (from the plague, mostly) in Shakespeare’s neck of the river. So it’s a shame that the tale is larded up with so many dubious plot layers. There are also some dialogue clunkers, the worst of which has Will worrying that his eldest daughter “just doesn’t get me!” Still, it’s worth seeing for the setting and for one incandescent scene with Ian McKellen, who shows up as Shakespeare’s erstwhile patron (and possible paramour). That one long scene, with dedicated veterans trading the bonnest of mots, makes you remember how the finest actors really can make “sullen earth” sing “hymns at heaven’s gate”.