Warning: I am about to compare All is True, Kenneth Branagh’s new speculative bio of William Shakespeare, to Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Confession: I’m doing it in part so that a certain percentage of potential readers don’t immediately click away at the first mention of Shakespeare.
Viewers arrive or arrived at both flicks with kernels of biographical information. They knew coming into Solo that, at some point, Han met Chewbacca. They knew there was a Kessel Run that didn’t use a traditional measure for comparative scoring. They knew the Millennium Falcon was acquired from Lando Calrissian.
Similarly (although, admittedly, without as much gotta-see-it-opening-weekend passion), Bard-ophiles may already know Shakespeare retired from playwriting for a life in the county with his family. They know that Shakespeare had a son, Hamnet, who died young and was survived by a twin sister. Perhaps most cryptically, they know Shakespeare specifically willed to his wife, Anne, the family’s “second best bed.”
As Star Wars fans weren’t shy about audibly recognizing how Solo referenced the film cycle’s once-cryptic moments, smarty-pants scholars may give audible chuckles of recognition when details about these Shakespearean matters are filled in during All is True. But there’s no prior knowledge of these things required to appreciate and be moved by Branagh’s film, which is more about grief and reconciliation than trivia concerning the greatest mind that ever put words into actors’ mouths.
All is True does a good job of walking the uninitiated into the core situation: After his theater has burned down in London, Shakespeare (Branagh) returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon, allegedly to retire. Assimilating into domestic life isn’t easy, since he’s been away for a few decades with only rare visits. While he has kept his family secure financially, he wasn’t around during the period when his wife and daughters were mourning the death of his son (Judi Dench’s Anne blisteringly notes that while they were grieving, he was writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.)
Will wants to make a garden — not a functional one but a memorial one. He’s also committed to keeping his family’s good name, something he fought to establish after his father’s thieving and his own lack of education. (That he possessed a coat of arms, an indicator of social status, is one of few facts known about Shakespeare and is dealt with in Ben Elton’s script.)
All is True is far from the first attempt to fill in the blanks in Shakespeare’s life. On film, Tom Stoppard amped up the wit and romance for Shakespeare in Love while, on stage, Bill Cain’s Equivocation heightened the political tension. But Branagh’s film is concerned with quieter matters. Will’s assumptions about his family’s life and his attempt to assimilate the truth into his romantic perceptions help drive the plot, and his responses to both praise and condescension regarding his stage career help create a thoughtful presence at the core of a very human story. A nearly unrecognizable Branagh, who certainly has demonstrated on screens and stages his deep appreciation for Shakespeare’s words, here demonstrates the skill required to make him a complex, interesting character.
And while domestic drama is at All is True’s core, there’s still room for a beautifully played encounter with a muse from Will’s past (Ian McKellen) and an aria, of sorts, offering a defense to those who think that such an unlearned man as Willy S. couldn’t possibly have written with the range, beauty and authority demonstrated in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. All is True isn’t all true, of course. Little of it is. But it requires less suspension of disbelief than Shakespeare in Love … and it has prettier scenery than Solo. And I’m glad I saw it before heading back up to the Stratford Festival in Canada later this month … but I don’t think I’ll look at The Merry Wives of Windsor in quite the same way.