All Is True (2018)

All Is True first published by Sight & Sound, March 2019

Review: In a scene near the beginning of All Is True, William Shakespeare is shown outside his Stratford home, telling the housemaid that composing plays is just like tending a garden or baking bread. While these are just the sort of homely similes to be expected in the Bard’s verse, the homeliness of provincial life is now all that remains for him. For opening in 1613, after an onstage accident during a performance of his Henry VIII(also known as All Is True) led to the burning down of the Globe theatre, the film follows Shakespeare’s voluntary retirement from London and writing. Home to settle his legacy, and to grieve properly his only son Hamnet – who had died some 17 years earlier, aged 11, in the playwright’s absence – Shakespeare finds himself at the centre of a literally Shakespearean domestic drama where home truths are concealed in fiction. 

Shakespeare is here portrayed by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh, himself an acclaimed director and performer of Shakespeare’s plays – although you will struggle to recognise the actor, transformed by makeup into the likeness of a likeness, which is to say into the appearance of Shakespeare in the famous ‘Chandos’ portrait with which the film opens. Sophisticated and charming, All Is True itself offers up a hall of mirrors, as Shakespeare, attempting to exit the stage for a real life with his family, is repeatedly pursued by echoes from his own plays. Like his Lear, he is an old man dividing up his property between daughters; like Hamlet, he is haunted by a ghost and undone by a drowning; like Prospero, he sets up his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) for marriage; and like Romeo, he is a star-cross’d lover, unable to transgress the class boundaries that keep him from his patron, muse and inamorato Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (an arch Ian McKellen). 

Here, since they are not actually playing his characters, established Shakespearean thespians McKellen, Branagh and Judi Dench (as Will’s illiterate, abandoned wife Anne) get to swap Shakespearean verses in unusual, ironising contexts. Likewise, Ben Elton’s screenplay takes the minimal coordinates of  Shakespeare’s known biography and weaves from them a recontextualised story, part fact, part pure imagination. Elton arbitrarily resolves famous controversies about Shakespeare’s life – what was his sexuality? did he really poach local MP Thomas Lucy’s deer? why did he bequeath Anne the “second best bed”? – while constantly reminding us, in a story filled with deceits, secrets and misconceptions, that truth (even, implicitly, the film’s own) is ultimately illusory. Shakespeare is regularly praised by passing admirers in awe of his seeming ability to know everything, but All Is True focuses, by contrast, on the poet’s blinkered delusion when it comes to the dynamics of his own family, and especially of its female members, misunderstood and marginalised by a patriarch’s prejudices. This is a complicated picture, all at once celebratory and critical, with its central figure both an extraordinary genius and a somewhat bumbling, blind fool, whose obsession with having a male heir to match his own talents is also his – and his house’s – non-royal tragedy.   

Synopsis: 1613. After the Globe theatre burns down, William Shakespeare quits writing and withdraws from London to his Stratford home. Having been absent 17 years earlier when his young son Hamnet died (supposedly of plague), Shakespeare is haunted by the boy’s ghost, and sets about properly mourning him by working on a garden in his memory, despite being discouraged by his wife Anne from disinterring painful memories, and kept from her bed. When Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susannah is (rightly) accused of cuckolding her Puritan husband John Hall, Shakespeare pays off the accuser to quash the case. A visit from Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southhampton, shows that Shakespeare has long been in love with his patron, but unable, owing to his base origins, to realise that love in more than sonnets. Hamnet’s twin Judith reveals that she, not Hamnet, had composed the youthful poems that so impressed Shakespeare with their promise of talent. Wanting a male heir, Shakespeare encourages Judith to marry – but then has to write her husband, Thomas Quiney, out of his will when it is discovered that he has fathered a child out of wedlock. Anne invites Shakespeare to join her in the ‘second best bed’. Shakespeare learns that Hamnet did not die of plague, but, under the immense stress of impressing his father with Judith’s poems, killed himself. Made ill from grieving by the pond where Hamnet drowned, Shakespeare dies on his birthday, bequeathing Anne the ‘second best bed’.

© Anton Bitel