It’s 1613 and William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has burned to the ground; devastated, the Bard never writes another play. Instead he returns home to his wife and daughters and picks up a hoe, deciding that his son Hamnet, now 17 years dead, needs a garden.
Shakespeare (played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directs All is True) wasn’t around to mourn the child at the time of his death and it’s clear his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), isn’t impressed. Although she’s resigned herself to a marriage of disappointment, she quietly reminds her husband time and again that he’s always been absent and now it’s as if he’s a guest.
His daughter Judith is more volatile in dealing with her father, who wants nothing more than to see her shed her spinsterhood. His other daughter, Susannah, seems happy enough to have him back but she’s rather distracted entangling herself in what will be a scandal in their Protestant village. Retirement isn’t going his way.
There is much wry humour in All Is True, but its focus is a harrowing grief.
Writer Ben Elton has cleverly used Shakespeare’s belated mourning for his son as a springboard for explorations in character. There are a lot of secrets in this family and it seems they’re exploding to the surface, quite dramatically, every day, which tests the man.
There is Victorian feminism to consider, and sexual immorality, but mostly there’s an issue of “truth”.
The title of the film is taken from the original title of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and the script makes great use of it in a scene where a young man interrupts his gardening to ask how he does it – how can he write about every corner of the world, about every race, about men and women, about poverty and wealth? To which Shakespeare replies: “If you’re honest with yourself in whatever you write, all is true.”
For me, this is where the film finds its place in greatness, in Elton’s interrogation of truth – truth in life, truth in art, truth in his own particular take on Shakespeare’s legend.
In a fascinating scene between Shakespeare and his old friend the Earl (Ian McKellen), the film avows Shakespeare was gay. Debatable, but this isn’t really Shakespeare’s true story; it’s Elton’s, and his imagination is huge.
The narrative is fat with revelations and it’s a credit to the plotting. It might feel a bit long but that’s because All Is True is at heart a philosophical (albeit quirky) film.
The acting is spot-on and the cinematography impressive, but most of all it’s highly inventive. Even audience members who are not generally fans of period pieces are likely to find it both intriguing and charming.