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All Is True
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by Jay Seaver

"Kenneth Branagh's latest Shakespeare film is a bit different from the rest."
2 stars

It is unlikely that any actor or director working today is as broadly associated with the works of William Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh, and as a result it is both natural and kind of weird for him to make a movie where he plays the Bard himself - there are horror stories about obsessed fans that start this way! For better or worse, the most off-putting thing about "All Is True" is that, for someone who has consistently found ways to defy the popular idea that Shakespeare's plays are stodgy and archaic, it's almost shocking how dull this movie is. Neither he nor anybody else involved manages to find an angle that brings this story to life.

He and writer Ben Elton set the film in 1613, soon after the Globe Theatre has burned down and Shakespeare has returned to Stratford-on-Avon, with no intent to write another word in his retirement. Though the town has benefitted from his success, he's not entirely welcomed home with open arms: Wife Anne (Judi Dench) thinks of him as a guest, as he has spent most of their marriage in London; daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is married to John Hall (Hadley Fraser), a smug Puritan who won't mind inheriting from Will even as he disdains the theater; and daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) resents that her father immediately begins creating a memorial garden for her twin brother Hamnet, who was the sole focus of Will's attention even before he died when they were children twenty years ago.

Judith has a persistent suitor despite her low self-esteem and Susannah may be contemplating an affair, but relatively little comes of most of the things simmering in the background. Part of it is that both the particulars and general shape of 400-year-old family drama is likely to feel pretty irrelevant, but part of it is that Ben Elton's script feels like he is desperately grabbing historical details to try and create a story and never able to shape it into something satisfactory. He'll gesture at Shakespeare's puritan son and the ironies of his position but never find anything to happen where that's concerned, or see the evidence that Judith had inherited much of her father's talent only to be stymied by society having no place for female writers. A sequence in the latter half, as Shakespeare seeks to learn the true circumstance of his son's death, serves as a sort of reminder of how the data and official paperwork that survives as a historical record gives the shape of a story but not the whole thing.

Most of that is happening around Shakespeare, but he is the one at the center of the film. He's a bit of a blank, introduced as an outsider and never inserted into much activity. Branagh himself gives a decent performance underneath a weirdly uncanny makeup job, but he and the character seem almost bored during the more placid sections, waiting to explode at those willing to benefit from his success without truly respecting his work. The combination of part, script, and actor merges into a weird feeling of egotism, a too-close identification with genius heightened by a number of scenes that are nothing but someone entering the film to tell Shakespeare he's brilliant and important (most notably Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley), or alternately having him put someone in his place because hey, writing plays and running a theaters is hard work, guy who thinks being a working artist is just getting paid for a hobby! There's truth to this, of course, but it is also very much the sort of thing that comes across as the filmmakers putting their grievances into their characters' mouths.

Only Kathryn Wilder really gets a chance to spark on-screen; Judith's got a number of legitimate complaints and gets to be plain-spoken with them, and for much of the movie, she's the only one who pushes back against Shakespeare in any significant way. Admittedly, it's probably the most enjoyable supporting performance rather than the best; Anne, for example, is kind of intriguing in large part because her shame and low self-esteem at being the illiterate, older country wife of an urban genius is at odds with her being played by Dame Judi Dench. It's a nice performance to start with, but the fact that most viewers know Dench is very much not the halting Anne highlights all the threads in this film about just how undervalued women have almost always been, even as it also makes it more frustrating that Branagh and Elton are rather hemmed in from having Shakespeare tackle this in any meaningful way.

That is not his legacy, after all, even if his later life does provide a way to illustrate just how cruel and destructive not treating women as full people is. If the idea is for this to be the actual point of the movie - that the audience comes in for a look at Shakespeare as a man only to get a lesson on what sexism costs the world - it's not a particularly well-executed bait-and-switch. Instead, the film winds up at least appearing to be penned in by its name - "All Is True" may be a better idea for a vanity project than most, but could use some embellishment.

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originally posted: 05/23/19 08:53:08
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  10-May-2019 (PG-13)
  DVD: 13-Aug-2019

  08-Feb-2019 (12A)

  N/A (M)
  DVD: 13-Aug-2019

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