June 12, 2020
Having learned that this film by Kenneth Branagh is a dramatic recounting of William Shakespeare’s late-in-life return to his home-town Stratford from his famed glory as an actor and playwright in London, I expected the movie to have the same level of high, conflicted drama and boisterous derring-do as exist in so many of his plays. For me, Shakespeare has always been a celebratory character himself. He must have been, I’ve thought, simply on the strength of his fame as an actor and especially on what he wrote.
So, this film surprised me.
Here, Will Shakespeare, played by Branagh, is presented as a world-weary, almost defeated man whose fame, great as it is, has been left behind in the ruins of his Globe Theater, recently destroyed by fire. He returns to his family (his wife Anne Hathaway, played with stoical, closed-in reserve by Judy Dench) and two daughters. We learn right away about Shakespeare’s having left the family in Stratford twenty years earlier, to make his career as an actor, and his continuous absence during that time. Now, his wife Anne is well into old age, one daughter, Suzanna, is married very unhappily to a disapproving Puritan bore, and the other, Judith, remains a resentful spinster. Will himself has lost his muse (indeed, he was not to write another play), and turns his attention to gardening, at which he is not very talented.
We learn eventually of the death years before of Will’s beloved only son Hamnet and the overall guilt-obsessed come-uppances from which all the members of the family have since suffered. Especially Will. He has the poems that Hamnet apparently wrote as child, which Will has always thought presaged Hamnet’s own future genius as a writer. Hamnet died of the plague (or at least everyone has been led to believe so) and Will still feels guilt for his not being present to save his son. Hamnet’s death is the constant reminder to Will of his own failures as a father.
Two elements in this film fascinated me. Night during the early 1600s was, of course, devoid of light. Candles and the fireplace were the only sources of interior lighting during that time, and darkness is central to all the conversations held at night in the film, which are many. The candlelight is beautiful and compellingly effective to the mood of the piece. But many of the conversations in this reduced light reveal the guilt and vituperation that exists between Will, his wife, and daughters. The surrounding darkness underscores the pain of their exchanges. Will, seized with longing for his lost Hamnet, yet defends himself against the anger of his daughter, Judith. Because she was not born a boy, she resents the life to which she feels she was consigned. Hamnet was the star of the family snuffed out by the plague. Anne, Judith, and Suzanna have all been secondary to Will’s hopes for his son, even as the boy has so long been in the grave.
The second element I find so interesting in this film is its reserve. This is a sad story notable for the self-examination among its characters. As such it may not be every viewer’s cup of tea. It is usually very quiet. The characters are all to some degree self-punishing. There is little action in the film, and many of the scenes are notable for long sequences of conversation, shot from a distance, with many fewer cuts than is usual in our current-day obsession with shallow, hurried, and nervous film-making. No car-chases here. No gruesome splatters of blood. Rather, character is explored. Guilt is revealed, as are self-criticism and, sometimes, self-acceptance — once one’s own responsibility for terrible events becomes clear.
All these things make All Is True a very thoughtful film . Shakespeare’s character, as marvelously played by Branagh, reveals hurt sadness that I would not have expected from the man who wrote those incredible plays. But so be it. The story works. The sadness is truth. The guilt is palpable. The very occasional celebrations are hard won.
Just incidentally, there is a scene in All Is True that I would advise every actor to watch. Ian McKellen appears as the Earl of Southampton. He was a friend and supporter of Shakespeare’s early career as a poet. He is often suggested by Shakespeare scholars as the subject of many of the poet’s early romantic sonnets. In the film, the earl, now an old man, arrives in Stratford for a visit with Will, and the conversation between them (at night, in low light) is not to be missed. Self-revelation, love, and humor are all part of this scene. Sadness for Will is the ultimate result as the Earl departs the conversation as though he already has dismissed it. In this, two superb actors briefly explore dalliance, exchange, maybe love, and final disappointment, in all of which the viewer is thoroughly involved.
Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book about racial confrontation in the United States, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, was published last year, and is available everywhere.