Throughout his storied career, Kenneth Branagh has always closely associated himself with the works and exploits of the immortal Bard. From Henry V to Hamlet, he has explored Shakespeare’s literary output – so it is only natural that someone so fond of Britain’s foremost playwright would attempt to bring to the screen an actual chapter of his life, or at least, his take on it. All Is True concerns itself with the twilight years of the renowned national poet, the fire that engulfed the Globe Theater in 1613 and Shakespeare’s subsequent return to Stratford with his wife, Anne Hathaway, before his death three years later. This serves, in essence, as a logical conclusion to Branagh’s enduring fascination with so legendary a writer, and in his exploration of what he perceives to be the Bard’s closing act, he offers up an interpretation of what transpired in his final years.
It is certainly an interesting angle that Branagh has aimed for, an exploration of who the Bard was beyond pen and paper, and that Shakespeare and his associates are brought to life by the cast is certainly true. Branagh lives out his fantasy with aplomb, though often he finds himself encumbered by Ben Elton's peculiar and plodding script. Dench ramps up the Dench factor in her curt and aloof performance as Hathaway and McKellen genially delights as the Earl of Southampton, a man once speculated to have been Shakespeare's lover. At home, too, we witness the disconnect between William and his family, the former having spent years in London reaping the rewards of his success as his son, Hamnet, passed on many, many miles away.
It is the death of Hamnet that achieves a special sort of prominence during the proceedings, But as we get scene upon scene of Branagh reflecting stoically, brooding in a blunt and hollow display of telegraphed humanity, of characters probing into the playwright's private life and of all the likely fabrications added to the script to make the affair seem more genuine while playing fast and loose with facts - letters that were never sent, the script awkwardly crowbarring in modern values when Shakespeare soliloquises about his views on his daughters and the legacy of his family - buried beneath a genuine love for an immortal poet is endless drudgery.
The cinematography, save for a striking sequence of the Globe burning, is largely static. Dialogue drags on interminably, much of the exchanges being needlessly expository in nature, characters rambling and yammering on about meetings and identities and exchanging witticisms in a rough approximation of periodic speech. The attempt that All Is True tries to make in imparting some humanity onto our common image of the Bard is understandable, but it is overwrought, melodramatic and punctuated by periods of abject nothingness as the film fritters away its meager runtime on needless frivolities, and ends up in a curious quandary where it is too vague and slow-going to engage the interest of casual consumers of Shakespeare's work, and too riddled with fabrications and inaccuracies for the old guard to enjoy. The whole feature comes across as insincere, a way for Branagh to realise his personal fantasy at the cost of providing audiences with something genuine and engaging, even in the face of a trio of solid performances from seasoned veterans, thespians all. Anglophiles and true fans of poetry will still derive the most pleasure from this, but while it is not a torturous experience, that is a niche market to aim for.
Well-intentioned, but narrow-minded and misguided in its execution, All Is True is middling at best, and the end result is a sequence of events that, in all likelihood, are entirely fictional, brimming with possibles and maybes and a dollop of 21st-century historical revisionism, overburdened with ponderous expository dialogue and an excess of dutch angles - and a film that most certainly does not live up to its name.