Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show: “All Is True” dramatizes the life of William Shakespeare after the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613 and he returned to Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s about the retirement years, essentially, and that may be all the come-on a literate audience needs. Factor in Kenneth Branagh as Will and Judi Dench as Will’s wife, Anne Hathaway, and put Branagh behind the camera as director, and you’ve got a wise, autumnal movie, yes?
Well, no — or not enough of one. “All is True” is expertly acted and handsomely filmed but suffers from an excess of sentimentality, a rash of revelations, and a surfeit of subtext, with characters blurting out the hidden motives for their behavior instead of simply behaving them. I imagine Shakespeare himself might be simultaneously tickled and appalled.
Branagh’s Will comes home to a cold reception, as befits an artist who has spent most of the past decades in London. “To us, you’re a guest, and the guest gets the best bed,” says Anne, showing him to his own room. Older daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is possibly cheating on her stiff-backed Puritan husband (Hadley Fraser), while younger daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) still fumes at her father for favoring her late twin brother, Hamnet, who died at 11 and appears in ghostly form (Sam Ellis) here and there throughout.
Will, for his part, has never ceased mourning his son and has relegated the women in his life to the back of the carriage, a state that the secrets and twists divulged by Ben Elton’s screenplay do much to rectify while leading us through several family scandals noted by history. There’s a subplot about Shakespeare tending to his garden that doesn’t push the metaphor too hard, but that may be the only one.
The screenplay’s lack of subtlety is mirrored in Branagh’s lead performance, which is generally ham well served. The “joke” of “All Is True” is that Shakespeare in life may have been as small and ordinary as his gift was titanic, obsessing over social status and snubs while denying the women in his life an inner existence of their own. Chiding him about the mysterious “fair youth” of the sonnets, Anne says, “All these years, Will, worried about your reputation. Have you ever considered mine?”
Accordingly, Dench plays a quieter, more complicated game as the illiterate country wife of a great city playwright. Anne Hathaway was eight years older than her husband, while Dench has 26 years on her costar; this matters less than it might, but it matters. Anyway, we’ll always have the actress’s Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love.”
As Judith, the “spinster” daughter who marries a local vintner (Jack Colgrave Hirst) midway through the movie, Wilder ably carries the bulk of the script’s histrionics and moments of truth. Still, there are scenes of the Shakespeares all resentfully screaming at each other when a family soap opera about the man who wrote “King Lear” seems perverse, even if intended.
The worst offender is a treacly soundtrack score from the usually reliable Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle; it smothers the film’s re-creation of early-17th-century England in a bath of aural glue. By contrast, the highlight of “All Is True” comes with a visit from the playwright’s patron and possible lover Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), an aging roué who recognizes Shakespeare’s genius while brutally confirming his social inferiority.
To watch Branagh’s Will tenderly recite Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) and then McKellen’s Wriothesley recite it back to him with the emotional majesty of the man for whom it was written — well, that may be all the movie that’s necessary. The rest is sound and fury, and you remember what that signifies.
ALL IS TRUE
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Ben Elton. Starring Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Ian McKellen. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, suggestive material, and language. Mild violence done to the Bard’s memory).