All is True

Film review by Don Franks

All is not true but lots is good in the Shakespeare movie now showing in Wellington. In All is True, Ben Elton’s script combines, happily to this viewer, the little that’s known of historical Shakespeare with some thoughtful fantasising.

Slow burning at the start, the film takes a while to establish Kenneth Branagh as a credible Shakespeare persona. No attempts are made to try and suggest 16th/early 17th century speech sounds. This approach works most of the time, although sometimes, when coupled with 21st century attitudes, any illusion of reality drops away. As when Kathrny Wilder comes centre stage as the bard’s stroppy teenage daughter Judith. Wilder and Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway construct wonderful strong female characters but their confident outspoken feminism is hard to credit in a mainly rural society emerging from the Middle Ages. Screen Shot 2019-05-11 at 7.27.52 PM.png

Solid performances are turned in by all the actors but, for my money, Ian McKellen steals the show. Revelling in his casting as the Earl of Southhampton, McKellen brings class to the movie, in more ways than one. In the sequence of Southhampton’s visit to Stratford we’re shown the Earl’s real admiration for Shakespeare’s genius seamlessly blended with his easy contempt for Shakespeare’s attempt at social climbing.

The scene with the Earl putting Will in his place was for me the movie’s high point, followed closely by the street scene where Sir Thomas Lucy gets trashed. Lucy publicly sneers at Shakespeare for being a dysfunctional husband and mere player with words. Shakespeare rounds on his tormentor and delivers a magnificent summation of what it takes to be a great writer, actor, producer, director and businessman, concluding with a classic Shakespearian insult to which there’s no possible reply. This imagined speech is central to the film’s estimation of Shakespeare’s achievements, Ben Elton’s homage to a great artist he fervently admires.

All is True shares common ground with Jackie French’s The Diary of William Shakespeare, gentleman. Both set in the period of the poet’s retirement to Stratford, both imaginatively speculating on his human contradictions and family relations. If you like this movie, I reckon you’d love the book.