There’s been a handful of Shakespeare biopics in recent years, and not many of them have looked inspiring enough for me to want to invest time and energy into writing a post about them. On the extreme end, you have Anonymous (2011) which is basically propaganda for the anti-Stratfordian contingent, which argues that no mean son of a glover could have possibly written such expansive plays about the human condition, and advances conspiracy-theory-levels of mental gymnastics to explain how any number of more exalted personages, from Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, to Queen Elizabeth I and/or one of her supposed bastard children were behind the authorship of said plays (DO NOT GET ME STARTED) … to the goofy Bill (2015), which is more of a successor to the Carry On… shows of the 1960s and 1970s than a serious attempt at telling the Bard’s life story. And somewhere in between exists Upstart Crow (2016), a comedy series written by Ben Elton of Blackadder fame, who incidentally also wrote the subject of this post, All Is True.
Ben Elton teamed up with one of the greatest actors of our age, Kenneth Branagh, and between the two of them managed to bring to life a human-sized Will Shakespeare, recently forced into retirement (after a fire destroyed the Globe Theatre, because only a force of nature was going to stop Shakespeare, natch) and thus compelled to return to his home of Stratford-Upon-Avon and a family made up of virtual strangers to him.
In true Blackadder-fashion, Elton manages to humanize the myth with gentle humor, a little pathos, and a lot of irony, surrounding Will Shakespeare (Branagh) with a dysfunctional family made up of his enduring wife Anne (played by the always perfect Dame Judi Dench) and his two adult daughters; the brilliant but wildly underestimated Judith (Kathryn Wilder), and perfect-on-the-surface Susanna (Lydia Wilson). Undercutting everyone’s lives is the tragic death of Judith’s twin brother, Hamnet, and the plot centers around Shakespeare’s delayed grieving for the son he lost over 20 years before but was too busy with the meteoric trajectory of his career to properly mourn, and the frustration of his three remaining family members as they deal with their own feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and frustration with Will’s arrival upending their lives.
But lest you think that All Is True is a bummer of a movie, it is actually quite the opposite, demonstrating that no matter how frustrating family can be, it is also affirming to have, for lack of a better word, a tribe. And augmenting this genteel comedy of manners are some really lovely, understated early-17th-century costumes designed by the master of understated quality historical costuming, Michael O’Connor (The Duchess, Jane Eyre, Tulip Fever, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).
Though, in true modern film style, the women’s hair is kinda … not great. Lots of beachy waves and loose, flowing mermaid hair, which makes for pretty hairstyles but isn’t in any way historically accurate. But we can’t blame that on O’Connor (not his department).
What did you think of All Is True? Share your thoughts in the comments!