Shakespeare nerds -- and here I include myself -- will drink deeply from "All is True," a new work of historical fiction about the great playwright's "retirement" years. Legendary Shakespearean actors Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen play key roles, but there's an even bigger headline: Directing the film and starring as William Shakespeare is none other than Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Aside from his many prominent Shakespearean stage credits, Branagh helmed and typically starred in films of "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Hamlet," "Love's Labour's Lost" and "As You Like It," so Branagh taking on the role of the Bard himself qualifies as an event. The title "All is True" derives from the alternative title to "Henry VIII," the play infamously on the stage of the Globe Theatre in 1613 when an errant cannon set fire to the thatched roof and burned the Globe to the ground. Branagh's "All is True" introduces its cheeky title along with the "Chandos" portrait of Shakespeare and a recreation of the Globe's destruction, two signifiers of Shakespearean history.
Of course, when it comes to the historical record, Shakespeare's last years are hardly more definitive than his youth. Screenwriter Ben Elton ("Blackadder") alludes to the scraps we have, but imagines the rest. At one point, Shakespeare quips, "I've never let the truth get in the way of a good story," but Elton has license to dream up his own truth about what happened when Shakespeare moved from London back home to Stratford-upon-Avon. In "All is True" Shakespeare returns to the place of his birth and formative years and is greeted by the ghost of Hamnet.
Hamnet, Shakespeare's son who died at age 11, becomes the "Rosebud" of "All is True" as his father obsesses over the tragic loss of this presumable budding genius. The angle feels like a stretch -- after all, Shakespeare essentially abandoned his entire family for his London theatrical career well before Hamnet's untimely demise -- but it allows Elton to turn the screws on the domestic drama of Shakespeare moving into his New Place property and having to contend with its occupants: his estranged wife Anne Hathaway (Dench) and Hamnet's twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder). (Lydia Wilson plays Shakespeare's other daughter, Susanna, who lives elsewhere with her husband.)
Although Elton brings out a bit of the droll comedy of the situation, the tone skews mostly dreary, to match the weather and the dim lighting of the Jacobean era. James Merifield's production design, Hannah Spice's set decoration, and Zac Nicholson's cinematography gorgeously evoke the period: Had the story and acting been total disasters, the film's visual qualities would alone justify seeing "All is True." But Elton and Branagh offer considerably more as we contemplate not the idealized Shakespeare of the popular imagination -- the man heralded here for writing "the greatest body of plays that ever were or will be" --but instead a flawed human being.
The most enthusiastic puncturer of Shakespeare's "bubble reputation" turns out to be Judith, the angry living child subject to sexism and orphaned in real time by a father fixated on his dead one. It's Judith who gets to rebuke the title ("Nothing is ever true," she insists) and hold out hope, however slim, of her father's redemption. Excuses will be made for sins, and secrets will be unearthed against the perilous backdrop of Stratford, aptly defined by its religion-stoked provincialism and small-town gossip. Ultimately, though, "All is True" amounts to an ode to parental love, complicated as it is by ego.
Naturally, "All is True" also serves as an elegiac valediction for Shakespeare's genius and a celebration of the centuries of scholarship that got us here. Elton deals efficiently with the marital situations of the Shakespeares, which constitutes what little we know about these years, and applies Shakespearean quotations judiciously, for maximum effect. Branagh and Dench play marvelously off of one another, their long history as collaborators informing their characters' bond.
The film's highlight, though, is the duet of Branagh and McKellen. McKellen plays the Earl of Southampton, known to scholars as the Bard's probable male object of affection, commemorated in numerous sonnets. In a scene as carefully engineered as the diner showdown in "Heat" (the historic pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro), Branagh and McKellen trade nuanced performances of Sonnet 29 amidst flirtation, banter and hard truths. The Earl calls Shakespeare "the finest, the most complete, that most beautiful mind, I'll warrant, that ever existed in this world," but for all that, he's still a man, subject to heartbreak and regret.