All Is True, a poky but likable new film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, opens, aptly enough, with a portrait of William Shakespeare. Over the following 101 minutes, a warts-and-all picture of the renowned Bard of Avon’s final three years comes into focus.
The story begins in 1613 as the Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground during a run of Henry VIII, also known as All Is True. Declaring that he’s putting down his quill, Will (Branagh, yes, that’s him buried under prosthetic nose and hairline) returns to Stratford. Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton blend fact and fantasy and conjure domestic hurly-burlies as the renowned author reckons with regrets and his failings as a family man.
Parallels drawn between the artist and his art aren’t subtle. Foremost, the playwright is haunted by the death of his young son Hamnet, a tragedy he’s never dealt with or, as this telling suggests, really grasped. The boy appears to his father as a ghost, in a twist on Hamlet.
The women in Will’s life add more drama. Absent for two decades while making his name and fortune, he comes home and is welcomed with closed hearts, not open arms. His wife, Anne Hathaway, (Judi Dench), is still vexed by his sonnets that point to his passion for someone else. She chides: You’ve always been obsessed with your own reputation. Did you ever think of mine?
His daughters, the unhappily married Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and sour spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder), who both end up in sex scandals, resent his neglect. Judith in particular is bitter that her father favored her late brother. It’s only a matter of time before she lets rip speeches sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Then again, you reap what you sew.
That’s where the film finds a fertile central metaphor, as Shakespeare takes up gardening. It’s a sturdy conceit, even if the filmmakers contrive to have Will quote Macbeth about trees moving to Dunsinane as he digs and deals with unruly roots. Initially his only helper is a neighbor’s dog. But eventually Anne pitches in and, later, to lesser degrees his girls take interest. Alongside hollyhocks and herbs forgiveness and understanding grow.
Branagh and his cast give uniformly fine performances, including Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, who may have inspired Will’s romantic poetry. The movie is also easy on the eyes. Branagh, who’s acted in and directed numerous works by Shakespeare, packs his film with striking visuals of verdant landscapes and candlelit interiors. Too bad the piano-heavy underscoring works overtime — too hard, actually — to tug heartstrings.
When all is said and done, while the title All Is True is meant to be cheeky, Branagh’s passion for his subject is the real deal.