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    ALL IS TRUE (Kenneth Branagh 2018)

    KENNETH BRANAGH: ALL IS TRUE (2018)


    BRANAGH, DENCH, ET AL. IN A SCENE FROM ALL IS TRUE

    Neither true nor necessary

    All Is True is a film focused on the first days of William Shakespeare's retirement from the stage and from writing. It was directed by and stars Kenneth Branagh. The author of the screenplay is Ben Elton, a British comic writer. But this is not a comedy. It's hard to say what it is - or what purpose it serves, except perhaps as a vanity piece for Mr Branagh, who is of course so much associated with Shakespeare and whose magnificent 1989 Henry V, directed by and starring himself, is his cinematic monument.

    Branagh plays the Bard in All Is True in a getup of a stiff wig and prosthetic nose mocked by critics - he's almost a Madame Tussaud's waxworks Bard - though it didn't bother me, perhaps because there is so much else to be distracted, confused, and displeased by in this movie.

    The whole thing isn't a total disaster. There are a few bright spots - notably a scene between Branagh as the Bard and Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southhampton, Shakespeare's patron and possible former lover. This moment not only allows McKellen to camp it up, but, surprisingly, is moving, which the rest isn't.

    The title refers to the putative cause of Shakespeare's retirement from writing and return to his hometown. "All Is True" was the original title of Henry VIII, during a performance of which there was a fire that destroyed the Globe Theater, home of Shakespeare's plays. It was this event, so the movie suggests, that made the Bard give up writing and move to Stratford-upon-Avon, his birthplace, where his family lived and where the on screen action transpires.

    But this is not strictly true, since a look at the chronology of the plays shows that after Henry VIII, Shakespeare didn't immediately stop but wrote another play, Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-14), whose prologue seems to refer to the "loss" of the Globe.

    The movie title seems meant to be if not funny at least tongue-in-cheek, since it invites one to notice that nothing depicted on screen can be called "true." It's all invented, so one's tempted to reposte with counter-phrases like All Is Bosh, All Is False or, less dramatically but more accurately, All Is Speculative.

    All is also a puzzlement, because Elton's screenplay throws at us a jerky hodgepodge of events that lack any compelling forward movement, dealing rather randomly with local family events and what Shakespeare is imagined to be doing in his new environmentt. Clearly he had by the time of his return spent a lot of time away from home, and his wife Anne Hathaway immediately reproaches him for this. It's jarring, by the way, to have her played by Judi Dench. She is 26 years older than Branagh, not, like Anne Hathaway, merely eight, though Dench delivers her lines resonantly as usual. Anne also lets it be known she was not happy when her husband's sonnets were unexpectedly published and they revealed that he had been passionately in love with several other people.

    Apparently the house is quite large, the largest in town. There is an ample plot of land out behind it, and here, the (ex-) Bard sets about building a garden. It's implied that this is a monument to his late son Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven, leaving behind his twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wider). Wider gets an angry scene complaining of how she is forever doomed to be slighted by her father's unfavorable comparisons to her lost twin. There are scenes suggesting Shakespeare wants to imagine that little Hamnet was a budding author of genius, but is deluded in doing so. It's been pointed out that Judith's dramatic language is very anachronistic - and politically correct in contemporary terms. She's a feminist, way avant la lettre. I kept wishing the dialogue throughout the film, as well as the pronunciation, made some attempt, at least, to duplicate the English of the period. But it never does.

    There is something about a puritan and a trial. Shakespeare's other daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is married to a prominent puritan, physician John Hall. She is accused of being unfaithful to Hall with a local haberdasher, which leads to a very public trial. These events seem thrown at us roughly and suddenly, and aren't well assimilated into the main action, which, in any case, is hard to make sense of.

    Some reviews in the English papers like the Guardian and Independent are much more respectful, but the American critics have been left unimpressed by this film. Peter Debruge makes clear his thorough disapproval in his Variety review. He calls All Is True "malarkey," an "ill-advised indulgence," "a revisionist fiasco," and "far beneath the standard of the Bard himself." All true.

    Shakespeare himself is made into a bit of a dummy in this odd Shakespeare-for-dummies film. Or he simply utters things that are inappropriate and ahistorical, such as the line attributed to Mark Twain, "I don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story." "You’re Shakespeare, the poet," a kid he runs into says. "You tell stories."

    Story and storytelling I think were not even a words used in Shakespeare's time to refer to what professional writers did. It's somehow demeaning and reductive (also corny) for Shakespeare to be continually made to call his work "telling stories," when what he did was so evidently the far more complex task of writing and producing plays, and penning sonnets and other poems, not "stories." Perhaps "telling a story" is what Elton thinks he is doing. More likely he is crudely lecturing us. Debruge argues that Elton is just using this subject as an excuse for a contemporary reexamination of feminine roles, and so forth. And what is not anachronistic is fanciful invention. All of it is utterly unworthy of William Shakespeare.

    You can spend your time much better elsewhere. If you want to see a work of personal cinematic art related to the Bard, try watching Derek Jarman's wonderful The Angelic Conversation, based on his sonnets. It's a celebration of gay love that's lyrical, passionate, original, and, incidentally, features the voice of Judi Dench. Magical! *See a clip H E R E. Dench, like other classically trained English actors, has a marvelous voice. And a high point of Branagh's unfortunate, unworthy film is a dual (and duelng!) recitation by him and McKellan of Sonnet 29. Shakespeare's sonnets, like the songs of Umm Kalsoum (if you're Egyptian, anyway) are a perfect accompaniment to young love.
    Sonnet 29.
    When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
    I all alone beweep my outcast state,
    And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
    And look upon myself and curse my fate,
    Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
    Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
    With what I most enjoy contented least;
    Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
    Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
    (Like to the lark at break of day arising
    From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
    For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
    All Is True, 101 mins., had a limited release in Dec. 2018 and showed at Palm Springs in early Jan. 2019. Its US theatrical release is May 10, 2019. Metascore (so far, as of 4/30.19) is 56%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-02-2019 at 01:03 AM.

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