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Review: 'All is True': Branagh, Dench and Ian McKellen brush up their Shakespeare

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

A warm and moving speculation on Shakespeare's final years, "All is True" has no interest in adhering to the historical record of the dramatist's life and resume. There is no single historical record. And there's precious little agreement among any two scholars regarding anything to do with Shakespeare -- from the alleged authorship of his alleged plays (the Oxfordian theory pegs Edward de Vere as the real author) to the particulars of Shakespeare's life before and after returning home to Stratford-upon-Avon.

In "All is True" an on-screen inscription notes that in 1613, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the toast of London, caught fire during a performance of "Henry VIII" (alternate title: "All is True") and burned to a crisp. From there screenwriter Ben Elton sends Shakespeare home to an uneasy retirement, where he is met by long-neglected wife Anne (Judi Dench) and grown daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder).

He's persona non grata in his own home, for good reason: The genius poet has spent his glory years swanning around in London, making plays and a reputation for himself. He was far from Stratford when his only son, Hamnet, died. Now Shakespeare can only grieve, and content himself with building a garden. At one point he acknowledges: "I've found it easier to create things with words."

Elton's narrative heightens a couple of scandals threatening his daughters' happiness. Eventually the screenplay rolls out its biggest leap: a dramatic twist that owes something to the David Auburn play "Proof" as well as something akin to Elizabethan soap opera -- "As the World Doth Turn," or thereabouts. That part of "All is True" tastes over-egged to me. The filmmaking has its routine aspects, among them Patrick Doyle's generic sedative of a musical score.

And yet the gradual, cumulative effect of this autumnal valentine is undeniable. Branagh's pretty good at this stuff, as you might know, and his portrayal reveals a man both vain and humbled, imposing but subtly detailed. (Branagh's prosthetic nose makes him look like Ben Kingsley's separated-at-birth twin.) Dench cuts straight to the heart of Anne's long-simmering resentments, which dissolve into a closer connection with the man she married and then, partially, lost. Also, there's a peach of a scene recalling Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight," where Shakespeare and his friend, patron and possible crush the Earl of Southampton (a splendid Ian McKellen) exchange spontaneous recitations of Shakespeare's Sonnet 29.

Branagh may be uneven as a director, but "All is True" shows a better eye and a less fussy, more purposeful sense of rhythm and pacing than all but one or two of the Shakespeare adaptations Branagh has brought to the screen. Elton's writing is efficient and often droll, especially when Southampton or Shakespeare is gently tearing some Stratfordian prig a new one. There's plenty to argue about here, including whatever happened with Shakespeare's contribution to what some believe to be his last co-authorship, "The Two Noble Kinsmen." But that's another story. This one goes its own way, and the performances are excellent.

'ALL IS TRUE'

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3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, suggestive material and language)

Running time: 1:41

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