All is True is a small film in the best sense. Its locations are few, its cast list is short, and its focus—William Shakespeare’s last few years of life, post-London—is narrow. Coming from director/star Kenneth Branagh, who has built a long and successful career on sumptuous and cinematic Shakespeare movies, the film’s smallness might be a surprise. As Branagh’s movies go, this is less like his star-studded, four-hour Hamlet, and more like his contained, charming little theatre-troupe comedy In the Bleak Midwinter.
The movie opens with the passing of a legend, as flames consume the Globe theatre. Left behind is William Shakespeare, helplessly watching his stage burn. We’re meant to understand: this is not a movie about a mythic figure, but a movie about a person. Soon, we’ll be watching Shakespeare argue with his wife and daughters, squabble with neighbours, and plant a vegetable garden. Rather than aiming for a defining Shakespeare film, Branagh has given us a family drama. And rather than sticking close to the (fairly spare) historical record, he’s given us a heavily fictionalized account. Both choices turn out to be the right ones.
The supposed unlikelihood of Shakespeare’s humble beginnings as the son of a glove-maker have long fired the artistic and scholarly imagination, most recently in Roland Emmerich’s bombastic Unknown. All is True withholds judgment, with Branagh playing Shakespeare as a generally unremarkable middle-aged man. It’s a performance that’s perfectly balanced by Judi Dench’s turn as his wife Anne. Left with the family for years in Stratford while Will sent money home from London, she’s world-weary, too—and she didn’t get to live it up in the big city. This divergence—the experiences that each of them has missed out on, and the things they do and don’t know about each other’s lives—is the heart of the movie. Will knows something of the wider world but little of his family; Anne is the opposite. In the end, though, it’s her house that Will has come home to. When he arrives, Anne shows him to the guest bedroom.
Beyond a few broadly historical events early on, the film is fiction, and its surprises are best left to the viewer. As a portrait of a man that we know surprisingly little about, All is True should find an effective middle ground for the history-minded, the theatre-minded, and casual viewers alike. And frankly, the film’s finest sequence, featuring Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, is enough on its own to justify a viewing. But this wistful, quiet work should have much to offer for anyone looking for that increasingly rare cinema experience: a simple story about the relationships, desires, and regrets of a few well-drawn characters.