Review: All is True

RATING: ★★★★

Sometimes I feel like I ought to write Kenneth Branagh a thank you note for always making films that are so oriented towards my personal tastes. Branagh is one of my favorite directors and his 2015 Cinderella one of my top five films of all time. I also have a fondness for Branagh's films as he is the president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London which my best friend attends and he has a tendency to cast RADA students and graduates in his films.

When it was first announced that Branagh was directing and starring in a film in which he would play William Shakespeare at the end of his life, I was thrilled. Certainly, Branagh understands Shakespeare better than just about any living person, something proved to me by seeing the Hamlet he directed at RADA last year. Adding Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and one of my all time favorite stage actors Hadley Fraser to the mix only made me more excited. The film didn't get stellar reviews after its short Oscar qualifying run in LA late last year and its release in the UK earlier this year, but I'm thrilled that it's now finally in select theatres across the United States.

This film is a fascinating look at Shakespeare like we've never seen him before on film. While it's certainly fanciful and takes lots of liberties with the facts that we do know (a bisexual Shakespeare? it's more likely than you think), it's also a far cry from the horrifically-inaccurate-if-wildly-entertaining Shakespeare in Love. Branagh brings a lot to the role of Shakespeare, the great poet and playwright, who is returning to Stratford upon Avon after two decades in London and has to reforge a place for himself in the town that he grew up in and the family he left behind, while finally dealing with the grief of losing his only son and wondering what sort of legacy he will have after his death.

It delighted me to see a Shakespeare who is less concerned about if people will remember him once he's gone and more concerned about where the money he'd spent his life accumulating will go upon his death as he has no son or grandson and doesn't particularly fancy it going to his Puritan theatre-hating son-in-law. Much of this domestic drama is centered around him rebuilding his relationships with his wife and two daughters.

While the film certainly explores gender politics and presents a Shakespeare who has constantly underestimated and pushed away the women in his life, it also doesn't heavy-handidly force modern feminism into places it doesn't fit like many period dramas are prone to doing. I don't think it's a stretch to think that the man who wrote roles like Lady Macbeth and Beatrice could come to respect the women in his life.

While Branagh is clearly the star, the supporting cast are all lovely. Judi Dench is particularly good as the weathered down, elderly, somewhat frumpy wife Anne Hathaway though she is much older than Branagh. It's a far cry from her normal period drama roles playing Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but she does it beautifully.

For any fellow theatre fans, this movie is particularly exciting as Hadley Fraser plays Shakespeare's annoyingly Puritan son-in-law John. He gets a decent storyline and some really lovely acting moments, in addition to a very cool beard.

Branagh himself is utterly transformed by makeup and prosthetics to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. The production value on the whole movie is wonderful and it really transports you to life in a village in England at this time, without the flashiness of your typical film about this period. There are also some gorgeous scenery shots and the cinematography of the whole film is rather good.

As the film does move at quite a slow pace, it won't be for everyone. But I think that anyone with a fondness for Branagh's work or interest in the life of Shakespeare would enjoy it. It made me think about the way that we handle grief and how even great men (and women) often feel lost in their personal lives despite their success. I can't wait for this film to come out on DVD so I can share it with my mom.

This review is an expanded and edited version of the one written for my Letterboxd account.
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