There initially seems a contradiction in the title of Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film All is True. Very little is known about the later life of William Shakespeare – whose work is so often the focal point of the actor-director’s career – and the film is openly aware of this with its constant questioning of what is real, foregoing fact for fiction.
The aim is not to fruitlessly interpret a history almost entirely unknown, however. Instead, the film opts to strip away the mysticism that has enshrouded the playwright and his quixotic legacy for so long, depicting a Shakespeare more down to earth and honest than ever before: a complex, grieving man with his own regrets, triumphs, and hardships – a human. All is True sincerely captures the humanity within the figure of Shakespeare in a way which feels timeless and ubiquitous, for as invented as the story here and those of the Bard’s writings may be, their innermost contents are indeed what is most ‘true’. The early ‘contradiction’ thus fades – truth is almost always honest and internal, and its proven here: all is true.
This interiority is where the contemplative, tragic narrative of All is True develops, following Shakespeare (Branagh) in his inescapable anguish following the death of his son, Hamnet. Having retired following the burning of the Globe Theatre, the playwright returns home to Stratford, where his grief haunts him and further strains familial relations. Ben Elton’s screenplay opens up a vulnerability to the icon never truly explored previous, navigating his soul with a sympathetic lens while shining a rare light on his flaws. Elton and Branagh are careful not to overstep into indulgence, with intermittent humour bringing levity at the right time and dedication paid to examining the turmoil amongst the rest of the Shakespeare family. The drama that simmers and unfolds over the course of the film is staggeringly powerful, though also often subtle – mixing grief, hatred and love in a manner that’s difficult to watch yet enthralling at every turn.
This is augmented by Branagh’s outstanding portrayal of Shakespeare; his life-long obsession with the Bard reaching its apotheosis in a performance that is altogether heart-wrenching and completely convincing, helped by excellent make-up work and costume design. The relative obscurity of All is True meant Branagh was not nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, but he deserved recognition. Other actors put in arguably career-best performances, including Sir Ian McKellen’s brief but captivating appearance as the Earl of Southampton, Dame Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and surprisingly poignant performance from Lydia Wilson.
Keeping afloat the writing is Branagh’s understated direction. Shot impressively by DoP Zac Nicholson, the naturalistic cinematography is at once dynamic and spectacular, using warm autumnal lighting, distinctive chiaroscuro and beautiful matte paintings. Sound is critical too, with Patrick Doyle’s grave, violin-laden score used in just the right amounts to let the atmosphere and performances tell the story. There is even a gorgeous rendition of the Shakespeare sonnet ‘Fear no more’, which in the context of the narrative compounds the heavy emotional toll.
While a soulful, deeply affecting ode to Shakespeare that hits thoughtfully at the enduring spirit of his work, All is True is concurrently an endearing and poetic meditation on life, legacy, family, death, and much more, and I daresay Kenneth Branagh’s magnum opus. The film is infinitely striking in every frame, stirring at every narrative beat, carrying top-tier performances from the entire cast as well as an exceptionally written, personal screenplay delivering wit and tragedy in equal measure. Its serene embrace of life is done with such compelling contemplation and craft that the film succeeds as a profound and poignant work.
All is True (2018), directed by Kenneth Branagh, was distributed in the UK by Columbia Pictures, certificate 12A. Watch the trailer below: