From Henry V to Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh’s career has frequently intersected with the work of William Shakespeare. Now Branagh finally portrays The Bard himself in this slightly flawed and often speculative study of Shakespeare’s final years.
Having worked so long and hard as an actor and director to make Shakespeare’s canon accessible to contemporary audiences, there’s little doubt that Branagh is well-suited to play ‘Will’ – even if he has to don a wig and fake nose to do it.
Shakespeare isn’t the only familiar company Branagh finds himself in, having recruited his old mate Ben Elton to pen the script. Elton, who has also toiled on another recent Shakespeare biographical work in the David Mitchell-starring TV comedy Upstart Crow, mainly resists easy or smutty humour and makes his familiar wordplay sound just enough like Shakespearean wordplay.
In 1613 Will’s Globe Theatre in London burns down during a performance of Henry VIII (or The Famous Hiftory [sic] Of The Life Of King Henry Eight), and we open with a meaningful shot of Will standing silhouetted by the flames. Silently aware that his time might be running out, he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon and the family that he’s long-neglected while away for years being a famous luvvie playwright.
Judi Dench appears as his alienated wife Anne Hathaway (not the Oscar-winning movie star!), and yes, she’s older than Anne ever was and the age gap between her and Ken is obvious, but they’re old chums too and, really, who else could have portrayed her? Lydia Wilson is also good as his adult daughter Susanna, who’s stuck in a rigid, passionless puritan marriage, while Kathryn Wilder has the harder role as his other daughter, the 28 year old ‘spinster’ Judith, who has long, uncomfortably angry scenes where she berates her father for his absence in language that might, at times, sound a little too modern.
Will, however, is often dismissive of all three of these women and seems quite the sexist (despite his status these days as a proto-feminist) as he continually agonises over the tragic death years before of his 11 year old son Hamnet (Judith’s twin). And Elton and Branagh make it abundantly clear that Will left and remained long-absent so as not to deal with his terrible grief, and that he really should be devoting his possibly last days to family members who are actually alive.
With an extended cameo by Ian McKellen as the somewhat camp Earl of Southampton (a Will fan who nevertheless accuses him of living “a small life”), some gorgeous candlelight cinematography somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and references, of course, to Hamlet, The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Macbeth (sorry!) and more, this has plenty to enjoy, even if so much of it is supposition and theory.
All Is True (M) is in cinemas now