With Upstart Crow on the BBC, Ben Elton is going through something of a Shakespeare phase, so it feels only fitting that Kenneth Branagh, the most Shakespearean man in Hollywood, would spin that to his advantage. The result of this collaboration is All Is True, an examination of the last year in the life of the Bard, a film that came out of nowhere around a month ago to enter into 2018’s awards season. Unfortunately, this surprise turns out to be an unpleasant one, with All Is True ending up as a very bitty and rather confusing film.
Branagh takes directing duties and also, of course, plays Shakespeare (an impressively complete physical transformation that Branagh can really get lost in). He has returned to Stratford Upon Avon after the 1613 fire at the Globe, where he concerns himself with cultivating a garden, reconnecting with his family, and finally coming to terms with the 1596 death of his young son Hamnet. There are some interesting scenes within this story, but it feels poorly cobbled together, emotional arcs stilted by a general lack of focus and a rushed-seeming edit. A compelling pace is never reached, and the intriguingly ‘modern’ cinematography (similar to Robbie Ryan’s excellent work on The Favourite) can only do so much when Elton’s script so over-commits to earnestness that borders on the mawkish.
Branagh gives a spirited performance in a role he’s clearly excited by, and even if Judi Dench is notably older than Anne Hathaway was at this time, she fits into this world very well. The rest of the supporting cast, though, are a lot less consistent, suffering from patchy character work and some uncomfortable dips into melodramatic overacting, announcing grand revelations that are more puzzling than powerful.
The arrival of Ian McKellen in a film-stealing extended cameo as the Earl of Southampton does set the ship straight somewhat. He’s on sparkling form, bringing a much needed dose of charisma to proceedings, and there’s a buzzing meta thrill to watching this legend of the stage and screen in awe of the mind behind so many of his greatest roles. All Is True is clearly a passion project for all involved, and it’s obvious that they had a great time making it (for even more Branagh/Elton Shakespeare action, Branagh is slated to appear in the Upstart Crow Christmas special), but it’s a pity that the final result is so undercooked.