Review by C.J. Bunce
Nothing taken away from the work of actor Joseph Fiennes in the romance-comedy Shakespeare in Love, but in the 2019 biopic All is True, it’s hard to imagine any actor as perfectly cast as William Shakespeare himself than Sir Kenneth Branagh. In one conversation between Branagh’s Shakespeare and Sir Ian McKellen′s Earl of Southampton, the quiet beauty of language and craft they convey will make you think no two people were better suited to their art. Taking a cue from the subtitle of Shakespeare’s final play, Henry VIII–the play being performed when Shakespeare’s Globe Theater caught fire (pro tip: don’t put stage cannons in your scripts)–All is True takes Shakespeare from there to his death, as he quits writing and returns to his home, his wife, and their two daughters to retire.
Ghosts of his past catch up with Shakespeare, as the rural village of his birth does not forget the scandals of his family’s past and present, silly things today that meant everything to English society in 1613. One of those ghosts is that of his son, Hamnet, the twin of his younger daughter, who died in real life of unknown causes at eleven, and which is expanded upon for dramatic sake in this story by writer/comedian Ben Elton (Much Ado About Nothing). Elton’s script smartly stitches together what history knows about Shakespeare and his family after his plays and what is probable or at least possible, providing a faithful, glorious look at what someone who knew his own legacy in his own time might have done next. Branagh reflects the kind of ego that must have been behind the man. Shakespeare neglected his family for years, and his youngest daughter, played by Kathryn Wilder (Ready Player One), lets him know it.
Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, 18 years his senior in real life, is played as impeccably as audiences would expect from Dame Judi Dench, and although 26 years his senior in real life it all works seamlessly. Branagh is hardly recognizable at first, until his undeniable voice takes over, thanks to a prosthetic nose that never leaves any doubt that Branagh conjured the ghost of Shakespeare for this performance. Equal to the performance is the year’s best cinematography by Zac Nicholson (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society), who frames every scene as if it were an adaptation of an original oil painting by Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt van Rijn. His use of light–especially his scenes shot by candlelight to mimic chiaroscuro–is magical.
But fair warning for anyone expecting something like Shakespeare in Love: this is a slow historical drama with a pace that barely moves, so if you’re dogged by the hustle of holiday shopping consider this as a remedy–a peaceful two hours marveling at pastoral landscapes of England (that also manage a Grant Wood texture) and the artistry of master thespians. Despite Branagh’s steady, slow hand, All is True keeps its deep dramatic journey ahead of similar genre films about the twilight years of famous people of the past.
The set and costumes are similarly impressive, thanks to James Merifield (Mary Queen of Scots) and Michael O’Connor (The Duchess). Frequent Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle (Henry V, Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing, Gosford Park, Murder on the Orient Express) prepared the perfect musical accompaniment to this painterly film.
Is Kenneth Branagh the greatest Shakespearian actor of all time? Probably. Is he also one of our greatest movie directors? Most definitely.
A marvelous historical drama and a master’s class in acting, All is True is now streaming on Starz, Vudu, Amazon, and other streaming platforms, also available here in Blu-ray at Amazon.