William Shakespeare helped to make Kenneth Branagh a household name. The Belfast-born actor established himself onstage acting in, directing and adapting the Bard’s plays. His first film as director, before he even turned 30, was 1989’s Henry V, where he dared to tread on territory that Laurence Olivier had claimed back in 1944. Four more big-screen Shakespeare adaptations followed, including his lavish production of Hamlet. So it seems only natural that Branagh should finally turn his attentions to the man himself, in a look at Shakespeare’s final years in Stratford-upon-Avon.
He has assembled something of a dream team to tell the story. Branagh had discussed Shakespeare’s life for decades with writer Ben Elton, a fan of the Bard who also created Shakespeare-focused sitcom Upstart Crow. Their shared passion for the subject led to Branagh choosing to don prosthetics to star in and direct this more serious and measured Elton script, extrapolating closely from the scant facts we know about Shakespeare’s life, rather than indulging in wild flights of fancy. Even the quotations from the plays are relatively restrained. Then, presumably because he can, Branagh recruited Judi Dench and Ian McKellen to headline the cast alongside him, giving this unusual biopic impeccable Shakespearean credentials.
The story starts when a fire, in 1613, burns down the Globe, and Shakespeare returns from London to his family home in Stratford. He’s been largely absent for 20 years, preoccupied with running his theatre and writing his plays, but he hopes to reconnect with his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and daughters, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson). He is also back to mourn his son, Hamnet, who died aged just 10 nearly two decades before. That loss is ancient history for the rest of the family, but for Shakespeare it feels remarkably fresh, as if he expected the house, and all those in it, to be preserved in amber during his absence.
This is not the sort of fanciful, flirtatious Will we saw in Shakespeare In Love, beyond a few flashes of humour and his obvious affection for the weary Anne. Nor is it the buffoonish pretender of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, which indulged the snobbish conspiracy theories that a middle-class and largely self-taught man could not have written these plays. Branagh’s Shakespeare is the familiar genius who built so much of English drama, but a version who seems unsure of what his effort has produced. He’s obviously proud of his family’s material comfort and the status that his work has secured, but with no male heir, there’s a keen absence in the midst of his success – and daughters who give him cause to worry for the future of his family.
Amid his struggles to find his place in his own home, it falls to an old friend, Ian McKellen’s Earl of Southampton, to highlight the greater contradiction of the Bard’s life in a standout scene. For all the soaring drama of his plays, Shakespeare led a modest existence, largely bereft of personal drama. Branagh and Elton respect that dichotomy, with a film that doesn’t reach for high stakes, devoting time to quiet contemplation and regret, rather than conflict or peril. They implicitly make the case that someone who understood the human condition as well as Shakespeare needn’t live through treachery or war to portray them onstage. The tragedy of this film’s Will, however, is that his vast understanding does not always extend to his nearest and dearest. Even for a genius in the twilight of his life, there’s always more to learn.
All Is True is out 8 Feb.
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