8/22/2019 ALL IS TRUE On Demand / Blu-Ray / DVD
SUNSET OF A SMALL(ISH) LIFE
Historians tell us that on June 29, 1613, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned to the ground, started by a mis-firing cannon underscoring the climactic entrance of King Henry VIII in a played called All is True. We now refer to that play as Henry VIII.
Movie and Shakespeare fans tell us that Director/Actor Kenneth Branagh made a name for himself by successfully adapting several Shakespeare works to the big screen, including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), a marathon “uncut” Hamlet (1996), a 30’s musical version of Love’s Labours Lost (2000), not to mention the Shakespeare-centric A Midwinter’s Tale (aka In The Bleak Midwinter) (1995) and a made-for HBO As You Like It (2006). Lately, though, he has been going full-tilt-boogie Hollywood, directing Marvel’s Thor, and rebooting some Hercule Poirot mysteries (Death on the Nile is in pre-production).
But, he recently returned to his Bardic source, producing, directing, and starting in All is True, an elegiac and rapturously sad look at the final years of Shakespeare’s life, from the burning of the Globe to his death less than three years later. As in Branagh’s other movies, composer Patrick Doyle had contributed a lyrically sad, lyrically eloquent score that intensifies all that is true and adds a note of verisimilitude to all that is conjecture.
Shakespeare (Branagh) has returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon, taking up residence in the guest room of his wife’s house (“We have seen you rarely these twenty years. To us, you a guest”). He has come presumable to (finally) mourn the death of his son, Hamnet, 17 tears earlier. His wife, Anne Hathaway (played gloriously by Judi Dench), is almost a stranger. His elder daughter, Judith (Hamnet’s twin sister), is a bitter spinster with no (apparent) love for her father. His younger daughter, Susannah, has married a puritan, a man who despises all things relating to the heater. Judith suspects her father is just concerned about his legacy and wants to marry her off to produce sons and heirs. She’s not entirely wrong.
The story unfolds slowly and deliberately. Shakespeare has put his creative life behind him and struggles to grow a garden. He sees visions of his dead son, and silently endures the silences of his family. He entertains a short visit from the Earl of Southampton, perhaps the ”object of adoration” for all those sonnets, an historical conjecture screenwriter Ben Elton and Actor Ian McKellen treat as true. This encounter is filled with rueful regret and undying affection. They each recite Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), in its entirety, each with his own subtext – Shakespeare obsessively adoring, the Earl equally adoring but burdened with the harsh sheen of society and mores. It is an exquisite moment and should be required viewing for all would-be actors AND poets, not only to see how two masters can put different meanings on identical words, but how subtext, emotion, and hings-left-unsaid can affect the meaning of a too-familiar poem.
Although the movie is incredibly sad – Shakespeare’s treatment of his family is execrable and his “redemption” (if you will) is a slow and painful path that isn’t fully completed – there are any moments of lightness and joy. Still, it’s the lingering ghost of Hamnet that drives the emotional engine of this film, and the truths about him and his death are what Shakespeare must come to terms with, even as those truths eventually create the conditions for his final illness.
But this is also the story of Judith, a strong woman at a time when strong women were rare and usually unwanted. She finds a husband, Tom Quiney, a rake who would be sure to offend her father. When Shakespeare accepts him as a son-in-law despite Quiney’s proven ill reputation, it is the beginning of the end of the estrangement between father and daughter, as well as the beginning of he road to redemption for Quiney himself.
Let us also not forget Susannah, a seemingly dutiful Puritan spouse with some secrets of her own, her priggish husband crossing more than a few moral lines to ensure she produces a son. In a plot twist worthy of Tarentino, Shakespeare saves her from a scandalous trial by invoking Aaron (from Titus Andronicus) in order to frighten Susannah’s accuser into fleeing to parts unknown.
And, again, now, as always, there is Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare dutiful wife, who gradually accepts her husband for who he used to be, and even loves (a bit) the man he has become. Ms. Dench plays her with a stoic face that reveals so much in single glance, a single comment, that Shakespeare can’t help falling in love again. Their path to reconciliation of one of the more satisfying arcs of the movie.
But this is first and foremost Branagh’s movie. His Shakespeare is a remarkable creation, showing us the genius as well as the entrepreneur, the loving family man who can leave his wife his “second best bed” in his will, and make us believe it was an act of love – which it might very well have been. Almost unrecognizable under a Shakespearean bald cap and goatee, Branagh captures our respect and charms us out of our harsh judgments to the point that we are as shattered as he when Hamnet’s death is revealed for what it truly was.
The tragedy of Shakespeare’s life is that his only son may well have died because of him, and that his singular ambition – his legacy – was there in Judith if he had ever bothered to look. Yes, we know now that his true legacy, his exquisite body of work, would live (and thrive) for centuries. But all he knew was the loss of his son, a loss he was, according to this movie, too preoccupied in London to truly mourn for 17 years.
All is True is a brilliant and moving return to Shakespeare for Branagh, and it only makes us regret that he ever felt the need for other avenues of expressions, other stages to enhance his truly remarkable career.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #AllIsTrue)
There are lighter moments, particularly in the scenes with McKellen, whose Earl seems to be a bottomless well of wit and snark:
Earl: You must write again, Will. … We have only Johnson now.
Shakespeare: Who laughs at me because I speak no Greek and don't know whether Bohemia has a coast.
Earl: Oh Christ Will, why do you care what he thinks? You wrote King Lear.