Truth be told, but expressed with only the very best intention, All is True is terribly old fashioned. As Shakespearean biographical features go, it is twee, sycophantic and hardly more factual than Roland Emmerich’s ludicrously slanderous 2011 offering Anonymous. And yet, projected through the lush glow of Zac Nicholson’s eternally autumnal cinematography, it is a delightfully tender film. From open to close, in spite of dour and devastating plotting, a viewing feels equitable to the warmest of enveloping embraces.
It should come as no surprise that All is True adores its subject. The film has been written by Ben Elton, the comedian whose Shakespearean sitcom – Upstart Crow – still runs of the BBC, and comes directed by Kenneth Branagh, a theatrical great often associated with the Bard’s legacies. Here, Branagh produces and stars too, appearing in scraped back wig, prosthetic nose and puffling pants to resemble every bit the iconic image of John Taylor’s Chandos Portrait. At his side, a quietly impressive Judi Dench plays Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s senior wife, whose illiteracy hangs heavy by her husband’s reputation and belies the stoic intelligence of her maternal nature. Lydia Wilson and Kathryn Wilder co-star as Susanna and Judith, Will’s daughters, and there is a small but smashing part for Ian McKellen, who trots in on horseback, wearing a fabulous golden wig, for a sonnet duet with Branagh. Twinkles abound.
For all the heart and soul of the film, Elton’s story – emotionally truthful, if not factually – is mired in tragedy. Indeed, Branagh opens with bombastic glimpses of the 1613 fire that turned the Globe theatre to ashes, mid-way through a production of ‘Henry VIII’ – a historical, contemporarily known as ‘All is True’. It is not without knowing irony that Elton borrows the title. Having brushed against his own mortality, Will retires from London life to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he will never write again. There, a secondment of gardening awaits and a much needed reconciliation with his family – to whom he has become so estranged that Anne sends him to the spare bedroom on arrival: ‘Guests sleep in the best bed.’
There are ghosts too in this tale; or, rather, the memory of young Hamnet, the son believed to have died by plague. In a pointed aside, Anne is quick to note that her husband’s response to the trauma was to write ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. Only in retirement does he finally mourn but not without some degree of self-interest. The heir to his family name and reputation – bought by Will for £20 via the installation of a coat of arms above his door – Hamnet had represented his father’s great ambition. Tension boils here and no mediation on the part of Anne is enough to prevent Judith from repeatedly wailing to her father that he would likely have sooner lost her than his son and male descendent. Cautiously avoiding too modern a sensibility, Elton does well to scribe sexual topicality into his script. Whilst Will professes, at one point, that women should be permitted to act in his plays – ‘as is the practice on the continent’ – later he as good as confirms his belief that Judith’s sole purpose in life is to marry and give him grandchildren.
In its tone and structure, All is True unfurls less like Shakespeare in Love than it does Bill Condon’s Sherlock swan song Mr. Holmes. Certainly, the reverence through which Branagh frames his hero – extreme angles and some gorgeous silhouettes – is befitting more of Conan Doyle’s iconic detective than a living, breathing man and there are similar dalliances with mystery amid each film’s more rambling pace. Here, both of the Shakespeare daughters are subject to scandal, while secrets haunt Will’s household. Visually too there is overlap with the Condon film, even if Branagh himself sites David Lean, Orson Welles and innumerable fellow greats as inspirations. Broad painterly external vistas – surely styled with Gainsborough and Constable in mind – starkly juxtapose with dark, cloistered interiors. Studio lighting is expelled in favour of candle lit vignettes, again channelling art masters, albeit Rembrandt and Vermeer. There is, at times, a staged quality to shots captured at distance but deliberately so. All is True soars as a tribute to a cross-cultural legend.