All is True

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

‘I don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’

As a director and actor, Kenneth Branagh has brought some of the best interpretations of Shakespeare’s work to the modern cinema. Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and the Henry V, the celebrated director proves that the legendary playwright continues to appeal to multiple generations. Over the years, Branagh has ventured away from classical tales and seen success with his new ventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor, a turn at Disney with Cinderella and an opportunity to portray the famous detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Now seems to be an excellent time to get back to his theatrical roots and when presented with the opportunity to portray William Shakespeare in his final days of life, this must have been too tantalising to pass up. 

During a performance of Henry VIII, a theatrical cannon misfired and caused the famous Globe theatre to burn to the ground. This had been the setting for Shakespeare (Branagh) to establish his career and reputation around the world as one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The tragedy led to his retirement and the end of his writing career with the writer deciding to leave London and return home to Stratford-upon-Avon to a family who supported him, but barely knows the man. Even though he had provided for his family throughout the years, his absence had made him estranged from his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and their children.

Coming back to this small town did not mean peace for the successful playwright, because he would finally have to acknowledge the emotional neglect he inflicted on his family and he would need to confront the ghosts of his past. The death of his son, Hamnet, plagues his thoughts and William must face the guilt of not being there when the boy had died. This event and his absence also led to his daughters entering into relationships with less than noble men to please their father by bearing him an heir. Yet, no connection needed more attention than his marriage of over 30 years with Anne Hathaway. As each layer unfolds upon his time in his hometown, Shakespeare must determine how he can confront his grief, guilt and loss while repairing the connections with each of those he loves the most. 

Even though William Shakespeare’s writings have lived on and he is still recognised as one of the greats of the theatre, the history of his personal life did not get much attention. The lack of actual evidence of his life outside the theatrical realm has led to a multitude of speculative accounts in which people have tried to fill in the gaps of his past. Taking in the reports of the era and the culture of the theatre, different ideas have arisen about the Bard’s personal lifestyle, sexuality and promiscuity. All is True capitalises on many of these speculations and does not seem to be as reliant on actual events in the final year of Shakespeare’s life as the means of delivering a tantalising melodrama. 

Branagh does have a marvellous eye for staging and the scope of a scene which leads to some of the strongest and weakest moments of the production. The external scenes that are played beautifully against the English landscape are mesmerising and allow the background to complement each word of Ben Elton’s script. These majestic moments are overshadowed by the multitude of internal sequences that are limited to mere candlelight which portray a mood of melancholy that drag the tone and feel of the whole film into the depths of the writer’s despair. 

Even though the cast works hard to deliver strong performances and they include some great talent, most seem to be miscast. Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway is a stretch, even though Shakespeare’s wife was a few years older than the writer, the thirty year age gap is noticeable. Then Branagh unrecognisable under the less than perfect makeup work, which did not help to convince the audience of him portraying his writing and directing idol. Each aspect of this production looks good on paper, but the combination lends more to a modern-day soap opera than as a living testimony of the greatest playwright of all time. 

REEL DIALOGUE: Did William Shakespeare exist?

It would be difficult to find an historian that would argue that William Shakespeare existed. His plays and prose continue to influence people around the world and his existence is undeniable. Yet, the details of his life are relatively unknown. His family, sexuality, personal habits and even his legendary image are questionable, because very little was written about him during his lifetime. Even with very little is known of his personal life, no one would question his existence.

This opens the door to another historical discussion, did Jesus exist? The amount of extra-biblical and biblical evidence that Jesus existed in actual history is overwhelming. No historian would claim that Jesus did not exist and The Bible is considered to be a reliable historical resource. This is a discussion that has scope to consider beyond a film review, but one worth engaging and studying. 

For those who would like to explore the historicity of Jesus, a great resource is Dr. John Dickson’s book and video series:

The Christ Files.

John’s studies are worth the time, but another great place to start is in the New Testament narratives themselves.

The Gospel according to Luke is a great historical text to study.