“I never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” remarks William Shakespeare at one point in the new drama “All Is True” — which is as good a description of what director/star Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton have done in this Elizabethan-era soap opera as anything.
It’s 1613, after a fire has destroyed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and prompted the playwright and impresario to retire. He returns from London to his home town of Stratford, to a family he has scarcely seen in 20 years while he’s made his fortune writing some of the greatest plays ever performed.
His wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), maintains the house and puts Will up in the guest bedroom. Will decided that, in his retirement, he’s going to plant a garden, to honor the memory of his son Hamnet, who died as a boy and is an ever-present shadow on the Shakespeare household.
This sadness is especially evident in how Will handles his relations with his two adult daughters. His older daughter, Susannah (Lydia Wilson), is married to the town doctor and leading puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith (Kathryn Wilder), is a spinster still living with her parents, who defiantly asks if her father wishes she had died instead of her brother.
There’s scarcely little recorded about Shakespeare’s retirement. Elton, who has experience filling in the blanks of history through working on the “Blackadder” series, turns Shakespeare’s story into a melodrama centering on marital strife, scheming over inheritance, and next-generation sex scandals. One wishes Shakespeare could have written it himself, if only to knock some sense into it.
Branagh seems to enjoy crawling into the skin of a writer whose works he has so often performed. The look is a bit off — with a prosthetic nose and pronounced beard, Branagh’s Shakespeare looks rather like Ben Kingsley playing the Bard — but the sensibility is there, as Branagh depicts the writer’s pride in his work and the many regrets borne of cannibalizing his life for his art.
“All Is True” works best in small moments, often when Branagh is parrying with great actors, like Dench as his patient wife or Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, the writer’s benefactor and most ardent fan. In those flashes of fire, “All Is True” gives us the Shakespeare Branagh aims to honor.
“All Is True”
Opened May 10 in select cities; opening Friday, June 7, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Megaplex at The District (South Jordan), Megaplex Thanksgiving Point (Lehi), and Megaplex Legacy Crossing (Centerville). Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material and language. Running time: 101 minutes.