The Dove Take:
Bravo to Branagh for humanizing the most iconic figure in English Literature, encouraging modern audiences to use our imaginations, as Shakespeare himself inspired us to do.
A look at the final days in the life of renowned playwright William Shakespeare.
A heartfelt narrative with some intriguing twists, All Is True, the original title of “Henry VIII,” William Shakespeare’s last play, is aptly named. It plays on the fact that it is difficult to know what is, in fact, true about Shakespeare or any of his family, as we do not have very much information concerning them. While many of the foundational plot lines are rooted in what we do know about them all, major liberties are taken beyond this, particularly Shakespeare’s personal struggle with the death of his son Hamnet.
Will’s wife Anne, whom we know almost nothing about, is played by Judi Dench, as a loyal and somewhat deep woman, who accepts him as he is, even while pushing back in gentle yet strong ways. Dench is so captivating that she seems nearly mystical in every moment. Likewise, Branagh plays a Shakespeare who is reminiscent, regretful, soulful, and melancholy, capturing a humble spirit that the viewer does not expect from the genius bard. Somehow, one thinks of Shakespeare always through the lens of his work, which is grave, judgmental, witty, original, and full of life. He is regularly portrayed living out his days in a bustling London, carousing and capturing each moment to its fullest. However, here, in his later years, he is seen always in his hometown of Stratford, seeking to reconcile with his past, which includes his seemingly hurtful choices, couched in the abandonment of his family.
His daughter Judith, powerfully acted by Kathryn Wilder, is especially prominent as an angry and resentful young woman scorned by the restrictions of her time and the rejection she lives with as a result of her gender. Hence, the constant references to a feminist mindset, within the confines of an Elizabethan culture that supports and advances a patriarchal establishment; this tension is taken to great heights and serves as another major plot line. It is fitting then, that these female characters seek their legitimacy through Shakespeare, himself, as seen especially in their desire to emulate him by their efforts to become literate (in reality, both Judith and Anne could not read or write).
Though visually stunning, some might say this film is slow; however, I would venture to more readily use the term methodical, where much of the drama is exhibited through extensive dialogue. Most scenes take place in the English countryside—and especially in a garden that William is fashioning as a memorial to Hamnet, who died young. I was haunted by this main plotline, however, for Shakespeare’s grief seems far-reaching for a death that occurred 17 years previous. Nevertheless, from these dynamics a complex web of dysfunction and loyalty is derived.
Branagh, indeed, has some fine moments as a director, particularly when Will, Judith, and Anne sit together in conversation at various intervals throughout, for Branagh deliberately uses establishing shots where the camera is static and all three characters are within the frame, executing dialogue and blocking as though they are on a stage acting out a play in the theater. Though the most subdued in terms of lighting and staging to production design, these scenes are the highest points of drama, which serve to move the story forward.
Moreover, there are frequent references to the speculation of homosexuality in Shakespeare’s life due to romantic interpretations of his sonnets that speak about male love—played out in one powerful scene in particular through one close-up after another, within a conversation between Will and his longtime patron, the Earl of Southampton, rendered convincingly by Ian McKellen.
Regardless of whether “all is true” in this film, we can most certainly be sure that though the latter days of this genius’s life might have been led in quiet retirement, his exhilarating mind would have likely fashioned a similar stimulating fiction for himself—one he might have even ironically entitled, All Is True.
All Is True merits the the Dove-Approved Seal for Ages 12+.