Published May 21, 2019Without being immersed in certain theatrical scenes, I can't say where a man like Kenneth Branagh ranks among the interpreters of William Shakespeare's works. That said, at the very least, he's done it a lot.
He keeps a busy schedule as a director and star, from bathing in a river of ham in the first Thor, to busting out his best Russian accent for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, to donning remarkable facial hair for Murder on the Orient Express. Before all that, though, what made his name was a series of notable and faithful cinematic adaptations of the Bard's works, directing himself as Iago in Othello, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and titular roles in Hamlet and Henry V.
There's little surprise that the one man Branagh would trust to play Shakespeare in his latest film, All Is True, would be himself. He approaches the project with his usual upright vigour. The late-in-life biopic starts with Billy S. retiring after the Globe Theatre burns to the ground, and follows him to his death not long after, showing along the way the playwright considering his accomplishments and place in the world. His new surroundings also provide some regular folk the opportunity to shower praise on Shakespeare, and for Branagh, in character, to accept it gracefully.
Having given up writing without saying why, Shakespeare leaves the city for his country home. There, he has the chance to re-acquaint himself with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and his unmarried daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder). Her twin brother passed away of the plague and is still mourned by his father. Shakespeare's married daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), stays nearby with her Puritan husband.
The daughters provide some drama for the piece. Susanna has her father's eye, while Judith bristles at being a living reminder of what Shakespeare has lost. The staunch beliefs of Susanna's husband run counter to her passions, while Judith relinquishing control to her desires may leave her too open to the sleights of the world. Their turmoil largely run separately from Shakespeare's experience, mainly reminding us the life's spectacle continues even without him to document it. (And also to beef up a film that, in finished form, runs 100 minutes.)
Shakespeare himself is the film's most interesting conundrum, one with a soft emotional resolve towards the end of the film. At the start, he's telling people that he doesn't tell stories anymore, but that isn't true. We see him crafting and conversing and convincing and generally using his abilities for everything but creating the work. Through all this, the film digs into the passions and loves of the man, seen by him in retrospect at the end of his life, that fuelled his work, without ever giving a single grand thesis.
More than any other role of his, Branagh's turn here reminds me of his Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, another performance where he wants to give the air of a true man while imparting a gentle twinkle to everything he does. (When Ian McKellen shows up for a brief but impactful cameo, the twinkle competition between the two would be dangerous to epileptics.) Branagh approaches Shakespeare as a man he reveres and to show some of the figure's complex motivations, and does it all in a film that fails to connect to that performance for long stretches.
All Is True acknowledges a legacy and how it can change with time and interpretation. It shows how a man speaking from personal truth can provide subjective experiences around the world for years to come. It says the man lived but can't generate any new emotion about the man.