As a director, Kenneth Branagh has spent decades bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the big screen. So it’s only fitting that he now plays him as a man. All Is True, which Branagh also directs, tells the story of the last few years of the Bard’s life. It wasn’t a happy time, and the film is utterly devoid of the lightness Branagh brought to his adaptations of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. That, combined with a barely there plot, leaves the project largely uninteresting and ultimately unsatisfying despite a few juicy dramatic moments.
Branagh wears extensive prosthetics to not only resemble Shakespeare but also to appear nearer in age to Judi Dench, who plays Shakespeare’s wife, Anne. (Anne was eight years older than William, whereas 26 years separate the actors.) His fake nose, chin, and comically expansive forehead are distractions and prevent Branagh from being terribly expressive as he plays the writer in retirement; after a fire destroyed a London theater showcasing his Henry VIII (alternate title: All Is True), Shakespeare decided never to write again and returned to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Like any fresh retiree, Shakespeare putters around the house, seeming to annoy Anne and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), until he comes up with the idea of creating a garden in honor of his late son, Hamnet. Though Hamnet died 17 years prior from the plague, his father mourns him as if he’d just passed, talking about him constantly and touting his brilliance as a budding poet. Judith, Hamnet’s twin, has been saddled with survivor’s guilt and has turned into a bitter young woman with seemingly no desire to marry or have children. (“The golden boy is gone, and I’m just left with the girl,” she hisses to Dad, imagining his thoughts.) Shakespeare, meanwhile, wants nothing more than a grandson from her or his other daughter, Susannah (Lydia Wilson), who’s unhappily married and accused of infidelity.
That’s just one of several subplots that don’t go anywhere except in search of a genuine three-act story. Writer Ben Elton (a former actor who had a part in Much Ado) fills the script with sound and fury but no through line besides Shakespeare’s crippling grief. There are a few masterful scenes here, including Shakespeare’s intimate and homoerotic chat with his patron, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), and his confrontation of Anne and Judith regarding the true cause of Hamnet’s death. (Why he becomes suspicious, though, is anybody’s guess.) But nearly as much time seems to be given to outdoor establishing shots; though the tranquil scenes nicely contrast with the turbulent household, they further hamper a pace that was already slow to begin with.
Branagh’s the one who gets to showboat here, while Dench is largely wasted in a too-small role. Wilder is the most impressive, however, her Judith full of anger over not one but two family secrets. The character represents the discrimination women faced at the time—and, let’s be honest, for centuries afterward—viewed only as baby-makers (“All women want children!” Shakespeare crows to her) and incapable of having skills of their own. The critique is commendable, and Judith’s ends up being the strongest story in the film. But it’s not enough to keep All Is True from meandering, while failing to much illuminate Shakespeare’s own late-life truth.
All Is True opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.