Shakespeare is tending his garden near the beginning of “All Is True”—he’s come home to his family after the devastating fire that destroyed the Globe Theater, and he’s literally tending his garden. Suddenly an earnest young man appears out of nowhere. “I just wanted to know how you knew,” he says. “What?” asks Shakespeare. “Everything,” the visitor says. That’s a fair question, even though its fatuousness should have sent Will fleeing into the brambles. It’s also part of the answer to why this biopic falls flat, even though the Bard is played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed.
William Shakespeare the playwright was and always will be unfathomable. How could one human mind have encompassed the universe of knowledge, intuition and emotion that his did? Will Shakespeare the husband, father and retiree is another story. Some knowledge about this period of his life does exist, so the screenplay, by Ben Elton, wasn’t woven from whole cloth.
But its inventions and speculations aren’t very interesting. Nowhere do they hint at the man who gave us the plays. Nothing they tell us about the domestic tensions of the hero’s later years —his guilt about neglecting his family, his grief over the death of his only son—none of that justifies the plodding pace, the pervasive gloom. Surely the Shakespeares’ household budget could have handled more candles.
There are grace notes and lively passages every now and then, but they’re subverted by such galumphing declarations as “I’ve lived so long in imaginary worlds I think I’ve lost sight of what is real.” Which, as a matter of fact, is contradicted in a scene with Sir Thomas Lucy when Lucy oozes condescension about Shakespeare’s unworldliness and Shakespeare reminds him, with fiery spirit, that he has succeeded in the complex business of running a theater. (Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, is played by Judi Dench. That’s a welcome piece of casting though an odd one, since Anne was six years older than Will while Ms. Dench is more than a quarter-century Mr. Branagh’s senior.)
Kenneth Branagh is, of course, a fine actor, as well as an accomplished filmmaker; he’s directed, among other Shakespeare films, a splendid “Henry V” and a handsome, unexpurgated “Hamlet.” It’s a special pleasure to see him share a lyrical interlude with the peerless Ian McKellen. He plays the Earl of Southampton, who may have inspired some of Shakespeare’s most impassioned poems, and he shows up at Shakespeare’s house for a brief visit. McKellen’s presence plays like a guest appearance, and again, the age difference between characters is completely off. No matter, though. When the two men sit by a fire and exchange passages from a Shakespeare sonnet—which holds different meanings for each of them—all is as true as feelings can be.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.