MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
You know how it goes. For over a decade you are the most popular playwright in London, able to fill up hundreds of seats in a theater built to showcase your prodigious output of dramas, comedies, tragedies and historical epics. And then one day the Globe Theater burns down to the ground. It’s time to retire to the country estate at Stratford-on-Avon.
As a recent retiree, I was really looking forward to seeing how William Shakespeare handled things in his golden years. All Is True is based on some known historical data but the facts get jumbled up in increasingly frustrating ways.
When William arrives home his wife Anne Hathaway (Dench) leads him to the guest bedroom (with the most comfortable bed). It’s his room, now, as a guest. Anne will continue to sleep in the master bedroom with “the second most comfortable bed in the house”.
Things are exacerbated by the loss that Will still carries for the death of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis), who died at the age of 11. But Hamnet’s ghost shows up to talk to Shakespeare; their moments of conversation will appear throughout the film. Since the women of the house have worked through all of their grief years ago, they are impatient with good old dad, especially Judith (Kathryn Wilder), twin sister to Hamnet. Judith is unmarried and withdrawn and jealous of her father’s love that seems distant to her. She actually says to her father: “The wrong twin died.”
But it gets worse. The women all seem to be “woke” feminists, with Judith’s married sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson) engaging in a clandestine affair in response to a loveless marriage. There is much conversation about the family inheritance (a popular plot thread in King Lear). When things get too heated up, William goes outside to tend to his garden.
There is also a scene in the film – the best scene, actually – in which Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) comes to visit and he and Shakespeare coyly recite one of the Bard’s love sonnets (there is a minority opinion by scholars that it may have been written for a male lover or intimate male friend). Since this chapter stands alone and has absolutely no effect on the plot, it amounts to nothing more than a parlor trick.
And (to quote Shakespeare) “there’s the rub”. All Is True was written by Ben Elton, a television writer best known for period comedy sitcoms including Blackadder and Upstart Crow (a satirical comedy based on Shakespeare!). But actor-director Branagh plays it straight and serious, utilizing irritating period effects such as digitally hazy sunrises and many occasions of natural candlelight (that fail to match the visual mastery of 1975’s Barry Lyndon). The widescreen compositions often place actors talking indirectly to one another; my eyes were constantly scanning to make sure they were watching the correct speaker. And the language is all over the place, with stately dialogue interspersed with contemporary phrasing. Even the curse words seem off a bit.
The film concludes with a heartfelt reading of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, followed by a musical setting of the exact same sonnet during the closing credits. All Is True is less than true and often trite. Get thee to a nunnery and pray that Branagh’s next film is better than this one.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Two halos: A mildly diverting amusement that squanders the talents of its topnotch British cast.
Two pitchforks: Occasional strong swearing; adultery; village gossip and slander.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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