Tuesday, February 05, 2019

All Is True – Eastenders meets the House of Shakespeare in this delightful fictional tragicomedy about the Bard of Avon’s final years (from 8 February)

Ben Elton has history with Shakespeare but he has written the rather delightful tragicomedy screenplay for All Is True which, contrary to its title, imagines what might have been going on inside the head and house of Shakespeare in the last three years of the playwright’s life.

The story picks up after the fire burnt down the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII (whose alternative title was ‘All Is True’) and the Bard bows out of the cultural scene and retreats to Stratford-upon-Avon to spend time with his long-ignored family.

In what could have been a prequel for modern Eastenders, over 100 minutes Elton’s quill pens a story of accusations and cover-up, family secrets, reputation and legacy, grief, unfaithfulness, puritanism, illiteracy and self-confidence, and even has space for a ghost.

The dialogue is suitably theatrical and Shakespearean in style – though some modern aphorisms are allowed to sneak into the 1600s – as if the Bard had written one final autobiographical work to draw together the themes of his life.

Having been infected with a permanent case of writer’s block, a barely recognisable Kenneth Branagh confidently embarks on a spot of gardening and amateur horticulture to take his mind off the good old days in London and to try to dig his way into coming to terms with the death of his son Hamnet some 16 years prior.

Equipped with a chiselled beard and a false conk, Branagh delivers a deliberately-neutral performance that gives the audience space to size up his faults and failings without too many nudges from the director, and to empathise with the women in Shakespeare’s life – stolid and no nonsense Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), unhappily married Susanna (Lydia Wilson), and Hamnet’s gloriously unfiltered twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder) – and size up their motivations.

Ian McKellen pops in as the Earl of Southampton wearing a wig stolen from a pantomime Goldilocks and adds a smidgeon of cruelly-spurned bromance and some of the funniest lines in a scene that sprinkles yet more stardust over the film but could have been left out of the final cut (along with some of the longer recitals of Bill’s best bits by a less indulgent director and editor.

All Is True would be a beautiful film to watch even if you turned the sound down. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson deserves awards for near perpetual autumn tones and the distinctive framing (lots of over the visible shoulder shot and fixed views that allow headless people to wander in and out of shot).
“For family is everything …”
While there are moments in which Shakespeare nearly turns into a nineties man embracing his inner feminist and accepting the messiness of his wonderful family, the script always wrenches him back to his longing for a male grandson (even while his unnamed granddaughter sits at his table) and chuckles at the greatness of men who have sex with boys and girls. Shakespeare’s putdown to local snob Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) is classic Elton; however, the valedictory speech at the close lays it on too thick and too long.

Lifting the imaginary lid on the unexpectedly complicated house of Shakespeare, together with the beautiful landscapes and Elton’s snappy one-liners creates a charming film that works even if you only the most cursory memory of Shakespeare from school.

All Is True is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre and Movie House cinemas from Friday 8 February. Note that the QFT’s Saturday 9 morning show followed by a Q&A with Kenneth Branagh has already sold out.

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