Little is known about the events in “All Is True,” an ill-advised Kenneth Branagh indulgence that reimagines the months immediately following William Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford-Upon-Avon with a wink — to the extent that even the title is an inside joke for the Bard’s fans, a reference to the name by which his play “Henry VIII” was originally known. Incidentally, it was that very play that destroyed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, quite literally, when a prop cannon misfired, burning the building beyond repair. And so Branagh’s story begins, in 1613, as the Bard returns home to be with his family, at which point some or none or who-knows-which of the events depicted in “All Is True” did or did not take place.
The movie, written with heavy hand and sodden-witted offense, has a few too many 400-years-the-wiser admonitions it wants to deliver about the way that Shakespeare, for all his gifts at creating rich and well-rounded characters for the stage, may have been a one-dimensional old misogynist in reality. “I don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,” he is made to say, which is a line more often attributed to American author Mark Twain, but the movie’s agenda is clear: Fifteen years after appearing in Branagh’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” actor-cum-screenwriter Ben Elton has taken the liberty of manipulating this penultimate chapter of Shakespeare’s life (his death is relegated to closing text) to suit whatever points he wants to make.
The result is a revisionist fiasco, too dense with Shakespeare allusions for casual moviegoers, and too fast and loose with the facts for those who know a thing or two about the man. In short, “All Is True” takes the English language’s most gifted dramatist and reduces his sunset years to a sloppy soap opera. After so many memorable Shakespearean performances, ranging from “Hamlet” to “Henry V,” Branagh plays the Bard as the dullest of fellows, barely recognizable beneath a false beard, distracting rubber nose, and bizarre prosthetic hairpiece — the combination of which has the effect of interfering with any facial expression that involves more than the lower half of his forehead.
Perhaps Branagh saw this elaborate disguise as an extension of the transformation he underwent to become Hercule Poirot in last year’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” although in both cases, we are reminded that he is hardly Johnny Depp’s or Lon Chaney’s equal when it comes to creating memorable characters. And if this screenplay really did need to be made, why not cast actors who better fit the part? Why, for example, cast Judi Dench as Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway? In real life, she was eight years his senior, whereas 26 (and one day) separate Dench and Branagh.
The footage itself is pretty enough to look at, and it’s something of a novelty to watch gifted Shakespearean actors — including Ian McKellen, who appears as Shakespeare’s patron (and possible lover), the Earl of Southampton — scrounging for dirt in the playwright’s private life, but what’s the point, when the screenplay is so far beneath the standard of the Bard himself? For nearly the first hour, whenever characters open their mouths, it is to deliver clumsy, expository dialogue. They are constantly reminding one another of who they are, how they are related, when they met, and so on, for the benefit of what Elton must assume are brain-dead audiences. Or else they are commenting on the chasm between Shakespeare’s artistic gift and his sheer inability to manage a dramatic situation he didn’t write himself.
It’s hard not to roll one’s eyes when he confesses, “I’ve lived so long in imaginary worlds, I think I’ve lost sight of what is real, what is true,” although there is some glimmer of human feeling behind this sentiment — perhaps more personal (to the filmmakers?) than biographical. Set several decades after the equally fictionalized events of “Shakespeare in Love,” this relatively charmless non-sequel might just as easily have been dubbed “Shakespeare in Mourning,” as it finds poor William moping about his pension, marinating in the loss of his only son, Hamnet — whose death several years earlier is treated as a family mystery. Shakespeare’s wife and two daughters, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson), dealt with Hamnet’s passing when it happened, whereas — as Anne reminds her husband, though he can’t have forgotten — he turned around and wrote “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the time.
Elton has devised a conceit whereby Shakespeare believes that his son was a budding talent who might follow in his footsteps, based on letters lost to time which were, of course, never actually written. This invention allows the film to incorporate 21st-century gender politics, suggesting that Shakespeare unfairly pressured his daughters to bear him a grandson so that the family name might continue while overlooking that either of them might also have been capable of carrying on his poetic legacy. There are other digs (these better substantiated by his oeuvre) about how humiliated Anne must have been when her husband published sonnets addressed to his “Dark Lady.”
It all feels incongruous for its time, far too conveniently reimagined for 2018, in which artists of the past are being torn down by contemporary moral standards — the way that Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” built to a fiery reappraisal of Picasso’s character earlier this year. This is not to say that Shakespeare was a saint, nor to suggest that it’s inappropriate to hold nasty men in history accountable for their transgressions, but so much of “All Is True” is based on idle speculation, Elton and Branagh would have had to tell a much better story for us to buy this malarkey.