“AND since you mentioned her, my wife Anne has more decency and wisdom in her daily shit than you have in your entire body!”
That is Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in Branagh’s “All Is True,” a scene toward the end of the film, when much has been revealed to the retired playwright, and he has no time for impertinent fools.
Sony Pictures Classics hosted the New York premiere of “All is True” early this week, at the Robin Williams Center at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation on West 54th Street.
I’d heard nothing of the film until I received the invitation and arrived with only the anticipation that it was Branagh and Shakespeare — Branagh as Shakespeare! — and so I’d likely be reasonably engaged and entertained. What more should one expect from a free movie (and dinner.)
How lovely that I emerged deeply moved and impressed by this revisionist take on the final years of William Shakespeare (or year? — I was not quite certain how much time passed in the film.) It is based on as much fact as we can gather about the playwright, with screenwriter Ben Elton furnishing the stuff that melancholia, regret and rage are made of.
We are told that Shakespeare has returned to Stratford-upon-Avon (where he was born) after the Globe Theater in London burns to the ground during a performance of his “Henry VIII.” The Globe was built by Shakespeare’s playing company and was “his theater, the great official showcase for his work. Perhaps taking this as a sign, an omen, he returns home to a family that is disinclined to welcome him with utterly open arms.
He has provided for them materially, but work has kept him a distant figure from wife Anne (Judi Dench), daughters —unhappily married Susannah (Lydia Wilson) and bitter spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder). Lingering is his cherished, agonized memory of a son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11. (“You mourn him now. At the time, you wrote ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,” remarks Anne pointedly.)
Branagh’s Shakespeare is an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent for imagining. (When asked by an intrusive admirer how he wrote what he wrote, having known nothing of life outside England, Will replies: “How? I have imagined. From myself. Every book I’ve read, every conversation I’ve ever had. Speak to others and then to four others but speak first to yourself. Know your own soul.”)
What he has not imagined, or not to the extent it presents itself, is the toll his ambition has taken on his family. Not to mention his sentimental idealization of a son he barely knew, in whom he invested great promise — Hamnet was to be a mirror of his father’s genius.
Susannah is preoccupied with marital woes (her husband is a stiff-necked Puritan; he is preoccupied with her inheritance). Anne’s quietly succinct remarks remind Mr. Shakespeare of his neglect. But it is Judith, the eldest daughter who has suffered the most, and she is at once eager to express her torment. Judith is like a figure from Greek tragedy — or a Eugene O’ Neill play. She will not rest until her hurts are avenged, all her secrets told. Shakespeare wants to plant a garden, live peacefully, reminiscence endlessly about Hamnet. Judith will be heard — attention must be paid and she will not be ignored! (Marvelous performance from Ms. Wilder.)
The pace of the film is stately, elegant, bucolic — I can’t call it slow because it’s not a tale of 14th century warfare — the various dramas of family revelations and village scandals are quite lively enough, and the movie is exquisitely photographed. (Panoramic wide shots of the countryside, cluttered, close-quarter sequences in town that give a good idea of the generally filthy conditions of the time, and scenes lit only by candles — a realistic touch I generally find annoying — my kingdom for a klieg light! — but not here.)
I loved “All Is True,” even if it’s not, entirely — and how could we possibly know, anyway? Screenwriter Ben Elton was surely expressing his own way of creating when he gave Branagh/Shakespeare that speech on reading, conversing, speaking to others, knowing your soul, “so that when you write, you will know that all is true.”
Every performance is superior, and although Branagh is much transformed by makeup (based on the famous “Chandos” portrait, he says) it is not a distracting maquillage. He poignantly captures the flickering hopes of reconciliation, of despair, of shocked revelation and finally a more or less peaceful resignation to the realities of his life — personally and professionally.
As Anne Shakespeare — older than her husband, more quietly bitter than her daughter, but no less lethal when she takes an arrow from her quiver — Judi Dench is brilliant but that’s like saying “Oh, oxygen and gravity still exist!” She is a law and force and natural element unto herself.
I have saved the best for last in the matter of “All Is True.” Ian McKellen shows up for ten sublime minutes as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The Earl was an old friend—perhaps more—of Shakespeare back in the day. (Gossip says it was so. History is less definitive.) Wriotheseley stops by to visit the playwright in his retirement. He arrives on horseback at Shakespeare’s home and is approached by an unctuous town official. The variety of expressions of contempt and dismissal that McKellen conveys, before he utters a word to this poor wretch are award-worthy right there.
McKellen and Branagh go on to share a scene in which the Earl encourages Shakespeare to write again, and also recalls the famous sonnet in which he is referred to as The Fair Youth (“ah, well, I was prettier then!”) Shakespeare counters with a declaration that the Fair Youth was indeed the earl, recites some of it with considerable emotion, and wonders if his old friend had ever felt a similar longing? At this, McKellen recoils, “It is not your place to love me,” he says and turns to leave. Then, he faces Shakespeare again and repeats the very same lines of the sonnet, in a tone of whimsy and indifference.
These are the words:
“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,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
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 remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
I am telling you, folks, the movie could have concluded at that moment and I would have felt satisfied to have seen great actors, greatly acting! And if McKellen isn’t nominated and doesn’t win an Oscar for this small but dazzling turn, there is no justice. Let us not forget Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for eight minutes in “Shakespeare in Love.” McKellen has her beat by two!
Oh, and speaking of Dench, as Anne she is less than happy when word comes of the earl’s visit. “You thought because I can’t read I wouldn’t mind? Other people can read, including one of your daughters. All these years you always worried about your reputation. Did you ever once consider mine?”
I can’t imagine Mr. Branagh or Sony Pictures Classics thinks “All is True” is going toe-to-toe at the box office with “Avengers: Endgame.” But I see little golden guys in its future.
THE PARTY after was held oh-so-conveniently right across the street at Feinstein’s/54 Below. I have seen a lot of cabaret there, but never experienced the place as an event site. It was very successful. Good food (the lobster sliders were particularly tasty), good wine, good guests (William Ivey Long, Julie Taymor, Rosemary Harris, Julian Fellowes— classy.) Director and star Mr. Branagh was beaming and youthful-looking. He seemed well pleased with his movie and the endless stream of compliments he received.
This was a Peggy Siegal event and perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was Miss Peggy herself. She looked great, but was dressed head to toe in black — not a bauble bangle or bead to be seen. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered Peggy so simply attired. She was her usual five-subjects-a-second self, however, and planning to attend the Cannes Film Festival, as usual.
I don’t know that I’ll ever make it to Cannes again, or to France. But I certainly do cherish my memories of the festival. If it wasn’t quite the glamour I romanticized from an era before I was even in “show biz,” it was glamorous enough!
Photographs by Marion Curtis / StarPix for Sony Pictures Classics