All is True
Ian McKellen and Kenneth Branagh sit before a roaring fireplace, talking of life and art, and perhaps thinking of love.
A dying Shakespeare is comforted by family, who have finally found a way to love him.
Judi Dench, the Bard’s wife, tries to adapt to a nest that’s no longer empty as her famous husband returns home permanently from London to Stratford-upon-Avon after years of running the Globe Theater and writing plays.
Such rich themes, exquisitely rendered with painterly cinematography, and acted by a cast worthy of Shakespeare, held such glorious promise for a thoughtful portrait of the Bard in retirement.
But no amount of elegant exterior can camouflage the creation of a 17th century soap opera that plays fast and loose with history.
Yes, occasionally, the script rises to great heights. But too often the script chooses to dwell upon the most salacious parts of Shakespeare’s life.
Scholars have noted that there are few original documents to confirm or deny many of the script’s conjectures. But from what we do know, scholars have found discrepancies, big and small.
Let’s start with the poetry of Shakespeare’s son. Will’s obsession over these poems is central to the tale.
“There’s no historical trace of any of this. That is just an invention,” says Harvard Shakespearean scholar, Stephen Greenblatt. Variety’s review says simply the whole thing is “a revisionist fiasco.”
Of course, historical fiction always extrapolates from the known into the unknown. But the choices here are replete with family scandals, and hidden desires. Go ahead, Kenneth: Kiss Ian and get it over with.
A sampling of the excesses will make the point.
For starters, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at 11 of the plague – or perhaps he committed suicide. Might Hamnet’s twin sister be hiding a secret about her involvement in that death?
His daughter Susanna might have cheated on her Puritan husband and might have contracted syphilis.
His younger daughter Judith married a man who secretly fathered a child before they were married.
And his wife, Anne, will be left a bed in her husband’s will.
Let’s toss in the possibility Will is bisexual, and trying to seduce the Earl of Southampton.
OK, so every family has its quirks and quibbles. And these themes include threads of historical truth. But, I kept reminding myself, this family has the father of “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” walking around. Could we have a glimpse of the life beyond melodrama? Could we blend soap with substance? Maybe a modest four pinches of insight for every six pinches of scandal?
The glue that almost holds this film intact is Shakespeare’s late-life crisis after his Globe Theatre burns down. He’s now belatedly paying his dues for being an absentee husband and father.
Why, with such a compelling central character headed toward sunset, does the script need to wallow in shallow waters? Why must we linger on the mystery of which kid, if any, wrote good poetry?
The answer to this is painfully simple: The script isn’t written by Shakespeare, but by someone stuck in the formula of how to market a movie.
The film also has superimposed 21st century feminist values onto the script by sprinkling lines about Shakespeare’s patriarchal sexism into the dialogue. Yes, he was guilty of discounting the women in his world and he was obsessed with having a male heir.
But could we have even a hint of his brilliant control of language? Perhaps accented with the flavors from the year 1613?
But let’s return to where we started: the moments when this film shines. There are many. And the craftsmanship and acting is stunning. It’s easy to find reasons to like “All is True.”
The Helena audience seemed absorbed, appreciative.
Reviews are divided. I suspect it all depends on what we want from the film, and how much we know or want to know about Shakespeare’s life.
“Wasted opportunity” sums up my reaction. I was perpetually restless and annoyed.
However, I loved seeing McKellen and Branagh talk deeply over flames. I was touched by Shakespeare’s sadness as he approached the end of his life. I was intrigued by his children, who were bright, troubled and living in the shadow of a giant.
Perhaps, then, the critic protesteth too much?
No. The cruel irony is that “All is True” isn’t true enough to be worthy of the Bard.