There’s a bit of a nod-nod, wink-wink irony in the title of Kenneth Branagh’s latest exploration of the genius of William Shakespeare. All Is True refers to the alternate title of Henry VIII, the Bard’s penultimate play, which was being staged in 1613 at London’s Globe Theatre when the playhouse caught fire and burned down mid-performance. That fire is a documented fact, one of the relatively few available about the historic figure who may be the most celebrated poet and playwright of all time, but yet left precious little evidence from which later generations could reconstruct his personal history.
When Branagh decided to direct a film about the last three years of Shakespeare’s life, the actor/producer’s mandate to his friend and screenwriter Ben Elton was to find a way into a tale that would hang on what little is known of the dramatist’s retirement to home and family in Stratford-on-Avon. The result is a period piece that feels oddly contemporary, like a titillating celebrity exposé that just happens to be set in Jacobean England. You want sex scandals? Got it. Unrequited love? Check. Courtroom escapades? All here, if not all (exactly) true.
Branagh, who shot to movie stardom with his production of Henry V in 1989, is in his element. After helming six adaptations of Shakespearean plays—plus A Midwinter’s Tale (1995), a movie about a troupe of actors staging Hamlet in the provinces—he is more than up to the task of playing the Bard himself, imagining him as a world-weary, bedeviled “great man,” home at last after 20 years mostly spent entertaining both elites and the masses in London.
Distance as much as time has muffled the grief he’s carried since the death years ago of his only son, Hamnet, but now that Will has returned to the family manor, his wound festers, spilling contagion into a brimming pool of domestic strife. His younger daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder), is a vituperative spinster; his older daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is married to a strict Puritan physician (Hadley Fraser) who sexually neglects her, perhaps because he has secretly contracted “the pox”; and Will’s wife, Anne (Judi Dench), is still frosty after the publication back in 1609 of his sonnets, which the local gossips view as proof of his affair with some unknown party.
This all sends Shakespeare moping around the Warwickshire countryside and his garden, like a 17th century version of Kurt Wallander (coincidentally, there’s also a mystery surrounding Hamnet’s death that he doggedly unravels). When he’s in town, self-righteous hypocrites heap scorn upon him for his humble origins and a slander lawsuit involving Susanna. The only saving grace comes in a visit from his longtime patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, played by Ian McKellen in the film’s strongest sequence. As Will pours his heart out, he slides into Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes . . .”), leveling a penetrating gaze at the noble benefactor who may or may not have been the “Fair Youth” to whom the first 126 sonnets were addressed. But Will’s ardor is deflected by Wriothesley’s reply: the earl’s own recitation of the same sonnet, a wiser, more nuanced rendition that leaves the poet with even more regret.
Around this point I began to wonder in what direction Branagh was leading us, his portrait of Shakespeare up until then having been hardly flattering. Will’s three spirited women at home may have the guts to challenge his narcissistic preoccupation (or, more charitably, his artistic dedication), but he doesn’t hold back putting them in their place. For someone who generously wrote so many triumphant, glowing female characters, he buys into the misogyny of his era: he’s the breadwinner and the genius, he reminds them. They’re there at his largesse, their function being to produce male heirs, and at the end of the day, they remain his property. And property is indeed very important to him; he now lives in the town’s second-grandest house, having pulled himself up out of his father’s impecunious disgrace, and spent a handsome sum for a coat of arms (that nonetheless has not erased tortured childhood memories nor stilled wagging tongues).
Maybe the film’s best clue to Shakespeare’s middle-age crisis surfaces in a brief but very amusing scene where a starstruck fan shows up on his doorstep to ask breathlessly, “How did you know?” “Know what?” Will replies, warily. “Everything,” the young man gushes.
Well, in real life Shakespeare didn’t know everything, at least not firsthand. What he didn’t know, he could imagine. He is not believed to have ever traveled outside England, yet he wrote characters so psychologically complex, and conjured locales so ancient or exotic, it was as though he had. His grasp of history was sound, but his instincts for self-preservation were equally strong, and he was not above reinterpreting inconvenient facts in order to stay in favor with the royal court. Then there’s also the matter, not addressed in the film, of the shared or contested authorship of some of his work—there’s no mention, for instance, that his collaborator on Henry VIII (aka, All Is True) was John Fletcher, who succeeded him as house playwright for the prestigious acting company the King’s Men. And of course, as scholars over the centuries have discovered, the Bard was a master thief, appropriating and/or refining snippets of lines or even entire plots devised by other writers, either dead or (sometimes) contemporary.
Today, we might call such a creative act “sampling,” or an “homage.” You could say that throughout his entire career Branagh has been paying homage to Shakespeare. The actor once said in an interview that he feels Shakespeare is “very life-enhancing,” adding, “I don’t have any kind of conventional religious belief and I find Shakespeare’s a tremendous source of inspiration, because there’s no situation that I’ve come up against that somehow hasn’t been described in those plays.” In All Is True Branagh and Elton do what the Bard did himself: take something—be it someone else’s idea, an historical fact, or a recent event—and mash it up with original material, to fashion an entertainment that feels real. As Shakespeare says in the film, not without a little snark, “I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” v