Run time: 1 hour 41 minutes
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Silhouetted against the flames ravaging the Globe Theatre — which burned down during a 1613 performance of his play All Is True — William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh, 58) decides to abandon London and retire to his original home in rural Stratford-upon-Avon. Awaiting him are unresolved emotional issues with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench, 88) that he escaped while tending to his life in the theater. “I lived so long in the imaginary world that I no longer know what is real,” he laments.
What happens when an artist loses the theater that became his true home, the center of his abiding passion in life? This question is where our story begins. Branagh's speculative answer feels real enough, though it works hard to overcome an overly imaginative script by Ben Elton (who wrote the Shakespeare TV comedy Upstart Crow). Dench, an Oscar and AARP Movies for Grownups Award winner, masterfully inhabits the role of Hathaway, who was left behind to care for their three children and hold the family together after tragedy. Years before, their 11-year-old son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) died while Shakespeare was off in London, writing The Merry Wives of Windsor (as his wife curtly reminds him). Anne, who can neither read nor write, must find a way to express her suppressed anger toward her wayward genius husband. With few words and simple truths, Dench forges an unforgettable portrait of a woman in love with a complicated man.
Then a blast of fresh air enters the film: Shakespeare's former patron — and, some say, long-ago lover — the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, 79) pays him a visit. In what is almost a play within a play, they talk about loss and desire, youth and old age in the fading glow of the fireplace embers. The earl chides Shakespeare for his bourgeois longings: “Your talents have greater scope than all the other poets combined, and yet you've lived the smallest life.” Their conversation culminates with each reciting Shakespeare's Sonnet 29: Shakespeare reads the poem as a cry for intimacy with his old friend, but the earl rebukes the low-born poet's presumption. What a brave, interesting choice for Branagh, to direct a second great actor riffing on his interpretation of those immortal lines.
But it is also in this verbal duel that we feel a strange distance from Branagh the actor, his face made somewhat rigid and immobile by prosthetics. Ordinarily, this is a man whose expression can change from light to dark without delivering a line of dialogue, but here his affect appears strangely flat. It is only in his eyes that we can see the instincts of a great actor at work.
Yet we have some beautiful moments: With sweet spontaneity, Branagh recites from A Midsummer Night's Dream; then, in an inspired, improvised scene, turns to Dench and asks her to go on. Dench's face lights up, and she continues the verses confidently on to the end. We see not just a marriage on the screen, but the trust and chemistry that can be found in a pas de deux between two superb actors.
As a director, Branagh gives us a meditative look at complex material, dressed up with painterly landscapes, lush costumes and glimpses into a genius’ inner turmoil. In the end, All Is True is worthy but uneven: great moments among long stretches of exposition, but lifted to the heights by performances of three of the best actors working today.