The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 30.050 Saturday, 9 February 2019
Date: February 9, 2019 at 8:22:04 AM EST
Subject: From TLS - 'Supercharged Bard'
By Michael Caines
Authorship is a serious business, and thoroughly worthy of the serious attention with which our finest writers, actors and directors occasionally deign to treat it. In a film about an author, the author in question may fall into quoting his own works at length, for example, in the course of an otherwise colloquial conversation. An author may stride, in slow motion, through a magnificent tumult of russet leaves and stirring string music. An author may give up authorship entirely; yet have a passing aristocrat conjure him to pick up his quill once more, because London has need of his Art. He is, after all, the greatest writer of all time. Such is authorship – if, that is, the author in question happens to be William Shakespeare as played by Kenneth Branagh in a film directed by Kenneth Branagh.
All the above incidents occur in Branagh’s All Is True, a film that dices, not infrequently, with bathos. All is not lost, though. There are fine touches and moving moments. And there is an odd critical reward to be claimed in considering the film’s relationship to the rumbustious BBC sitcom about Shakespeare, Upstart Crow, in which our literary hero is lampooned for his readiness to quote himself, pinch other people’s coinages without attribution, and so on. (Branagh himself took a cheeky supporting role in the most recent Christmas special.) The direct link between film and television series is that both were written by Ben Elton, making them siblings whose chief characteristics are perhaps best understood in relation to one another: if Upstart Crow refuses to take Shakespeare too seriously, All Is True betrays a genetic leaning towards pomp and circumstance that the sitcom is devoted to sending up.
After a few seasons of knockabout stuff, however, Upstart Crow did take a serious turn of its own: it covered the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (which historically took place in 1596, when Hamnet was eleven). The plague had struck with a sudden, ruthless selectivity, and that was that. In sitcom terms, this wasn’t at all an unprecedented moment (see, for instance, Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Elton also had a hand). But its blunt truth was apparently not enough for Elton.
All Is True revisits Hamnet’s death, only the film is set many years after the event. It begins with an ending of another sort: the Globe Theatre burning down in 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII. After that, the play’s distraught author (Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher being beneath concern, apparently) returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon. Retiring to his grand house, he is curtly banished by his disgruntled wife Anne to the best bed – as is fit for a guest – while she herself retains the second best. One of Shakespeare’s daughters, Judith, shocks him with her bitter and sometimes enigmatic remarks (“Nothing is ever true”); the other, Susannah, is unhappily married to a Puritan. And Sir Thomas Lucy is still alive (this much certainly wasn’t true in 1613) to lord it over the lower-born chap rumoured to have poached from his deer park. All is not well.
[ . . . ]
In other words, supercharged though it is with thespian gravitas, All Is True cannot help but fall hard, and fall willingly, into the trap of trying to present and explain Shakespeare’s life through his work – to fill the framework of the bare factual record with some kind of dramatic dynamic of its own. The struggle with this unyielding raw material tells in the disjointed script, and in the long silences that stand in for profundity. Branagh, made up to resemble an aged version of the Chandos portrait, gazes into the distance, pots and potters, and occasionally, as is his gift, drops in a gag. There are some lovingly played scenes courtesy of his distinguished cast. All the same, the sense of a parlour trick lingers, as well as of unintended absurdity.
Perhaps verisimilitude is most conspicuously banished from the scene when the Earl of Southampton gallops into sight: Ian McKellen, sporting a floppy blonde wig. Paying Shakespeare a call, he slights Sir Thomas Lucy and travels, it seems, without recourse to a retinue. In reality, the poet-playwright was eleven years older than the patron to whom he had dedicated “Venus and Adonis”. Here, though, perhaps verisimilitude matters less than the opportunity the fictional encounter gives the two theatrical knights to play a rare scene together on screen – a two-hander during which Southampton speaks as an aficionado, a watery-eyed believer in Shakespeare’s greatness, even as he condescendingly marvels at the “little life” that this great man has led.
[ . . . ]
In contrast to Branagh’s scene with McKellen, the relationship between Branagh’s Shakespeare and Judi Dench’s Anne develops in abrupt bursts of collaboration or recrimination – their exchange about the Sonnets being one of their longer scenes alone together. At other times, watchable as ever, Dench watches Branagh cultivate his garden. All Is True protests its admiration for Shakespeare’s way with words, but evinces faith in finely staged silences, too – or at least in dumb show accompanied by the serious music of the Branagh loyalist Patrick Doyle. The pace stays leisurely, even if the mood does not.
All Is True also evinces a tender addiction to the close-up. It is full of moving portraits, fascinated by McKellen’s candlewax mobility of feature, or the direct, awesome ferocity of Nonso Anozie in a cameo as Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus. Branagh’s camera is much calmer here than it has been in many of his films, in which sweeping, swooping manoeuvres abound. Here they are replaced by still, candle-lit interiors, to painterly effect, while the streets of Stratford take on a Dutch dignity. That said, some viewers will call it naff rather than nice to have a swan gliding along the Avon in the half-light, before the camera pans across to show the Swan of Avon himself mid-contemplation on the riverbank.
A beautiful concoction in some respects, All Is True is also a gauche upstart of the sort Robert Greene would impotently have attempted to stamp out. It happens to drop in the old factoid, for example, that Shakespeare died on his birthday. This is something we cannot know for certain, as we do not know exactly when he was born. We have only likelihoods and informed conjecture. Perhaps not everything is simply a matter of truth or fiction, after all.