For those who don’t know Shakespeare, or only know him superficially, the title “All is True” may sound more like an assertion than an inside joke. The film implies, without any real historical evidence, that Shakespeare was a closeted homosexual, that his daughter was an unrecognized poetic genius (paging Virginia Woolf!), and that he wrote wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor nearly a year after it was first performed.
For those more familiar with the bard’s life and works, the film will hold some (but not enough) compensating pleasures. I suppose it’s worth the price of admission just to listen to Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen recite the sonnets. But those of us who grew up watching the late, great Gene Siskel on television might be forgiven for holding any film at arm’s length that is actually less interesting than would be watching its principle actors discuss the subject matter over lunch.
For both, the film will be a bit of a slog, the sort of exercise designed to help out high-school students who would be better served reading the Cliff’s Notes if they absolutely cannot read the plays.
The film shares the alternate title of Henry VIII, which we are told was the production being performed when The Globe Theater burned to the ground. Shakespeare retires to Statford-on-Avon to plant a garden, exchange barbs with his dour, elderly wife (has Judi Dench ever been less pleasurable to watch?), and stare woefully at the ghost of his dead son. If there is one word that sums up the tone and plot of All is True, it is “dour,” which is shocking given that even tragedies as dark as Lear and Hamlet are buzzing with energy.
I spent the last hour or so of All is True wondering if it would be a worthwhile story had all the names been changed and it was presented as a generic story of grief and aging. Much as with Anne Rice’s The Young Messiah, the film’s use of an historical frame adds nothing vital to its story and creates an expectation of truth adjacency that it lacks the skill or imagination to meet.
Branagh’s film adaptation of Henry V (1989) remains one of the film highlights of my 30s. The wunderkid seemed to bring a revitalizing freshness to the text, underlining the topical and timely relevance of it, especially how it deftly weaves the themes of nationalism, militarism, and religion. It is a film about one of fortune’s favorites coming into his own and laboring under the weight of expectations.
All is True, conversely, is about a man who has outlived the joy of attaining one’s heart’s desires, and so it roots about for cheap, psychological reasons that might justify Shakespeare’s unhappiness. He didn’t get his true love. He is hounded by pilgrim admirers. (A scene in which he anticipates and dismisses the questions of a fan and aspiring writer comes across as a thinly veiled jab at movie fans and paparazzi who no doubt ask celebrities the same three questions in endless succession.) Puritan England doesn’t believe in the propriety of his business. He lacks a male heir.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays revolve around melodramatic situations and characters that are stock or even cliches. But his language elevates the jealous lover, the bitter patriarch, or the grieving family member. Ultimately it is the language more than the plot that distinguishes Shakespeare, and so it is the dialogue more than the treacly music, prosthetic noses, and bad wigs that sinks All is True. The dissonance between when the actors recite Shakespeare’s words and when they recite Ben Elton’s is akin to hearing Kelli Pickler cover Freddie Mercury on American Idol. It just sounds wrong.