Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable
I am a huge fan of Kenneth Branagh and have been ever since I saw Dead Again in the theater back in 1991. I think he is a director who has an eye for big operatic spectacles while capture as much of the beauty found in the visuals and dialogue. I find that he always swings for the fences. Sometimes he knocks it out of the park as he did with Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, or Murder on the Orient Express. Sometimes his takes a big swing and a miss like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
All Is True is a big miss.
However I don't really fault Branagh for this mess seeing as how the screenplay by Ben Elton is truly awful.
The story is about William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) returning to Stratford from London after the Globe Theater has burned to the ground. He comes home to his wife Anne (Judi Dench), who treats him like a stranger and two adult daughters: Susanna (Lydia Wilson), who is married to a puritan doctor and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), the unmarried "shrew" living at home. William spends most of his days in melencholy mourning the loss of Judith's twin brother Hamnet. All the while, people come to see the famous writer, including Lord Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). As this is going on, family intrigue and secrets come to light.
The opening shots are filmed with such beauty that I was prepared for Branagh to open the door and shed some light into this amazing man. But I came away feeling like I knew Shakespeare even less. The biggest problem with this film is that it is boring and disconnected. Elton's story really doesn't have a plot to speak of. It meanders from scene to scene. Some are so short that they last only a few seconds so that their point seems lost. He loses characters for huge chunks of time without making them compelling enough retain our interest while off-screen. He sometimes introduce characters at incredibly odd times. In the final act, the camera lingers on a woman who looks sad and I remember thinking, "Am I supposed to know her?" It turns out she is important to the story but we are only meet here after most of the movie is already over. The movie also has two big revelations, but they are placed awkwardly. By this I mean when we get to the second revelation, I kept thinking, "Shouldn't they have brought this up before?" Instead of feeling the weight of the emotion, I felt like I had watched this scene already.
But the movie's other big flaw is that it refuses to take a stand regarding its subject. Branagh has made a career out of interpreting Shakespeare's works. He has some very strong and bold takes on the characters and plot. But when it comes to the man himself, the movie keeps a respoectful distance, too respectful. A lot of his life is hinted at, such as his Catholic background, his relationship to his wife, etc. But it doesn't want to delve too deeply into anything that isn't confirmed historically. Because of that, it feels like we are seeing more of a depiction based on a research paper than the main character of a dramatic story. The only thing that the movie heavily leans on without commiting to is William's supposed homosexual attraction to the Earl of Southampton. But even this is layered over with subtext and Shakespearan sonnets.
Besides Branagh's cinematic eye, the performances are the only thing keeping this movie from descending into dreck. Branagh is every bit the master of Shakespeare as you would imagine him to be. Dench makes coldness an art while never making Anne a caricature. Wilson does a fine job of a devoted daughter in a loveless marriage. But Wilder is the one who carries most of the film's emotion. She desperately wants her father's approval and love, but she is crushed by a self-hatred that makes her push her father away. It is a wonderfully complex performance that is more real in its contradictions than less real.
This movie falls into a common trope that I have come to detest where we are supposed to accept the moral shortcomings of the artist because their art is so great. To be sure, the other characters try to take William down a few pegs because of his flaws. But there is still this aura of excusability because of his genius. Perhaps this is why God does not allow more of us to be as naturally talented. It is a bulwark for our souls against pride. While the art is admirable, the soul that composed it will exist long after the works are forgotten.
All Is True is a movie that tries to be worthy of its lofty subject, but its poorly structured script only serves to remind us that we should be thankful for the greater writing that the real William Shakespeare left us.