“If only Shakespeare had lived in the era of therapy,” I thought halfway through All is True. He could afford it. In Kenneth Branagh’s fictionalized depiction of the playwright’s exile, occasioned by a malfunctioning cannon causing The Globe to burn down in 1613, Shakespeare returns to Straford-on-Avon so that his wife Anne Hathaway and daughters can torment him about being a lousy husband and father. Not even Macbeth and Petruchio were so henpecked. There isn’t much to All is True beyond remembering the greatest hits of the Bard’s life treated as expository dialogue and the chuckles of Branagh and Judi Dench bedeviled by the sorriest old age makeup in recent memory.
Know who else may delight in All is True? English professors looking for a way to synthesize fascinating, disparate material about Shakespeare. Haunted by the death of his boy Hamnet years earlier, “Will” finds some satisfaction in the waspish company of Hamnet’s twin Judith (Kathryn Wilder), whom lit majors may remember from Virginia Woolf’s still startling feminist treatise A Room of One’s Own as an example of thwarted hopes. “For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty,” Woolf wrote, although Branagh’s Judith at least has the satisfaction of confronting Will with the truth about her ghost writing. Less troublesome is other daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson), married with children. More troublesome than either is the threat of Puritanism, which would like to set intentional fires to theaters like The Globe.
Watching All is True, viewers may conclude that the director-star of Henry V, which got him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Director at twenty-nine, has mythologized his relationship to Shakespeare. What Branagh has done instead is to reveal his attraction to megalomania. From the candlelight-drenched interiors to the way that Branagh frames his crooked, shambling self, All is True‘s Shakespeare is set upon, misunderstood, his intentions and thwarted loves swathed in darkness. He’s a savvy proto-capitalist as much as he’s a poet: Branagh can’t stop reminding the audience how much Shakespeare earned in his lifetime, the number of servants he employs, and who would benefit from his will. But he’s also Frankenstein, Hamlet, Thor, and Laurence Olivier — the other beefy supermen whom Branagh has been obsessed with or played in the last thirty years. It’s refreshing that he regards Shakespeare as a bit of a fraud; it’s better than waving a censer. But the lacuna in Shakespeare’s biography allow screenwriter Ben Elton to ladle generous portions of contemporary psychobabble that is his idea of humanizing him.
This conception is hell on the man behind the camera. Branagh hasn’t deepened as a director; All is True is rhythm-free, careless filmmaking. Moving from crisis to crisis as if it were one of those Carter-era dramas like Ordinary People, the movie exists as a collection of discrete set pieces, ready for play (he thinks) at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Every time a character pronounces the grisly lingo of modern day self-help I wanted to ring a boxing bell. “Why do you hate yourself?” and “All we wanted to do was to please you” and, of course, “You spend so much time putting words in other people’s mouths you only think it maters when he said.” All is True is the kind of movie in which Will, after dreaming about Hamnet, says to Anne, “He was here!” and she responds, the Tough Cookie softening into Wise Grandma, “He’ll always be here, Will” as Patrick Doyle score kicks your shins (speaking of Dench, I should point out that she plays the illiterate Anne, who struggles with her own sense of inferiority, with the right wary weariness).
In a film replete with lousy ideas, there is one beautiful scene. When the Earl of Southampton drops by for a visit, something about the old man’s passion for Shakespeare’s work inspires Shakespeare to do everything but shout his long-suppressed feelings for him from a farm top. Instead, he recites Sonnet 29. Southampton, not missing a beat, adds his own distinct ones, as if challenging the poet’s supremacy. Shakespeare at last shares his love; Southampton, moved but firm, rejects it. Their friendship remains intact. The old man, in a casting decision whose subtexts Branagh was no doubt aware of, is Ian McKellen, who plays Southampton like a Gandalf who has lived a life that has stopped short of commitment. To hear these two hams pour such intensity of feeling into the couplet, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings” dissipates the skein of psychobabble in All is True as if Prospero had just waved his wand. I thought “do no harm” applied to films about great artists. Desecrate the legacy if you must. Desecration takes courage. But for god’s sake don’t banalize the legacy.