THREE AND A HALF STARS William Shakespeare has returned to tend his garden and failed relationships.
Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench
PERIOD DRAMA #ALLISTRUE
It's not easy juggling career, family and fame - especially when your name is William Shakespeare. Sacrifice was all, at least it was according to this extrapolation on what little is known about the writer’s life, especially once he entered retirement. In Ben Elton’s labour of love, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, Shakespeare has moved back to Stratford to tend his garden and what little remains of his relationship with wife Ann (Judi Dench) and two daughters. Complicating matters is the ghost of their young son Hamnet who, as William would have it, was the child prodigy that never was.
In some ways, this is an end-of-life and rather sad sequel to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, one whose mantle of regret fits the dark and gloomy production. ALL IS TRUE is a sparse affair without the light and dazzle of its precursor, appropriately so given that any spark has left his marriage and, to some extent, Shakespeare’s life. A sourness set in sometime after the death of Hamnet and ever since, the writer has been punishing his little women for his own failings. William and Ann sleep in separate beds while they work through his problems.
Elton takes the unexpected, and unfashionable, route by reducing the scale of Shakespeare’s stage to that of a domestic drama, and tips out any broad-scale appeal along the way. A number of truths were also thrown out with the dramatic bathwater which, depending on your tolerance for poetic licence, is a distraction. Yet such reworking allows Elton and Branagh to keep a tight focus on this small scene in the hope of telling a much larger story and sometimes they do. Mostly it remains small, yet elegantly formed, with Branagh and Dench steering away from high notes and histrionics to open quiet spaces in which they can silently shout.
Accordingly ALL IS TRUE is no match for crowd-pleasers like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, but that was never really the point. The idea is regret and the result, while two parts dour to one part honest, is always heart felt and well intentioned. Engaging even, for the most part, even if those parts don’t make a sensational whole.