Perhaps, to some, I was the lark.
Sony Pictures Classics announced their deal to distribute Kenneth Branagh‘s latest All Is True after it had already been completed without the usual media fanfare surrounding projects with royal Oscar pedigrees such as one whose cast is rounded out by Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. You shouldn’t, however, be surprised to recognize this fact upon watching its often meticulously positioned frames of conversational exchanges with little to no camera movement. Alongside those longer elegiac shots of emotive gravitas are shorter ones devoid of excess as Branagh does his best to condense the final three years of William Shakespeare’s life into 100-minutes of intrigue, scandal, and karmic retribution—much of which concerns his reputation back home in Stratford as a man no longer able to hide behind London celebrity.
It’s a quiet film with minimal sets or effects that hinges solely upon performance to capture a sense of who this legend was when removed from his art. Ben Elton‘s script doesn’t seek to erase Shakespeare’s (Branagh) many failings either as so many of its best scenes are comprised of others letting him know exactly what they think of his genius and character. While this might mean the likes of a local politician and blowhard with an axe to grind (Alex Macqueen‘s Sir Thomas Lucy), his most formidable and biting opponents consist mainly of family who see him more as a guest than patriarch after twenty years of sparse appearances. This includes his provincial wife Anne (Dench) and their daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson).
Where this line of attack has immense purpose as the women Shakespeare so easily took for granted rise to expose the error of his way, its fiery import cannot help being structurally overshadowed at every turn. Why? Because the film is consciously set-up as being about a father’s unceremonious homecoming to mourn the years-old death of his only son Hamnet (Sam Ellis). William is haunted by the boy’s memory—a ghost lingering around their estate, waiting for this returned stranger to release him. Hamnet’s promise as a poet to carry on the Shakespeare legacy looms large as well thanks to William’s inability to even pretend his daughters were ever as crucial to his life as an heir he barely knew. That blind allegiance justifiably fuels their anger.
It’s therefore difficult to let their victories (Judith’s scathing remarks about her place in English society and her father’s eyes as a husband’s property meant to bare children cut deeply) stand when his defeated silence quickly turns to lamentation for his departed son. Branagh is left to juggle the fact that Elton has simultaneously written Hamnet as the reason for Anne, Judith, and Susanna to force their worth as human beings upon William and that which they could never compare. It’s a fool’s errand to try giving these wonderful actors who are actually on-screen and alive the weight they deserve when this father’s love for his son never dissipates. Rather than show an evolution of feeling beyond patriarchal means, it remains petty and gendered to undercut what matters.
So when Susanna is shown to be headstrong and bold enough to find happiness outside her marriage to the insufferable Puritan John Hall (Hadley Fraser), its underlying rebelliousness is forgotten after what the ensuing scandal means to Shakespeare. When Judith relents and decides to accept a man’s proposal after so vehemently rejecting the institution of matrimony, it’s to appease her father out of guilt and contrition. It’s always one step forward and two steps back with a tearful William desperately attempting to earn our sympathy. If Branagh’s intent was to force us to pity him instead, the director was successful. The end’s heroic memorialization would unfortunately have us believing otherwise, though. The women are ultimately proven wrong and thus the doting extensions of their psychologically abusive familial king anyway.
That description is hyperbolically harsh, but no less true. William is the villain in this film—conservative religious sentiments seeding the systemic oppression of women with him as its vessel—and yet the filmmakers strive to have us pretend he isn’t. For those able to play along, All Is True should present itself as a delight. It has the powerful pontificating of Wilder’s Judith and Dench’s Anne; the entertaining yet brief meeting between Branagh’s Shakespeare and his presumed target of romantic intent in McKellen’s Earl of Southampton; and the heartfelt revelations surrounding Hamnet’s demise that can’t help but devastate. I have to wonder how much more effective it all would be if everything wasn’t servicing a bookended desire to appease this false memory of a boy long gone.
Much of this disappointment stems from the reality that not much of Shakespeare’s own life is known. Branagh and Elton were therefore tasked to fill in the blanks of these years that followed the burning of his Globe Theater and render them dramatic enough to earn a feature-length story. I guess you could call it fan-fiction in that way. They give rumors swirling around William’s sonnets credence to then imagine how the cost would affect both the image and ire of Anne and the Earl. They conjure yarns wherein a lie about an actor in “Titus Andronicus” could put the fear of God into someone slandering the Shakespeare name and wield tragic circumstances (like Susanna’s seemingly loveless union) as a means of stoking the flames of discord.
The result is a well-made and well-acted piece of historical fiction whose big picture construct is sadly in opposition with its small picture intrigue. You can surely enjoy the latter removed from the former—I certainly did—but you can’t simply pretend the discord doesn’t exist. To so enthusiastically dress Shakespeare down so he can face the consequences of his selfish need to create only to then make it so that very real animosity is smoothed over without a second thought is disingenuous to say the least. You can chalk it up to the era and say Judith’s battle was enough considering the yet unwinnable war, but her headway didn’t need be so inevitably erased. It becomes empty lip service William never truly confronts—his wish for a grandson trumps all.
 Left to Right: Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare. Photo by Robert Youngson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Center: Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney. Photo by Robert Youngson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to Right: Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway. Photo by Robert Youngson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics