Ever wonder what happened to William Shakespeare when he retired? No one does, mainly because he didn’t write any plays, so quite why Ben Elton thought it’d be a good idea to write a feature length film about the Bard’s latter days in Stratford-Upon-Avon is anyone’s guess. Mostly, Shakespeare just potters around his garden and argues with his family like everyone else.
All is True was the original title of Henry VIII, the play that was being performed at The Globe theatre when it burnt down in 1613. Downhearted and sensing his time in London is up, Shakespeare returns home to find his family resents him and the parishioners have been gossiping that his love poetry was written for a man. Meanwhile, he’s still grieving for his dead son Hamnet (see what you did there, Will) and has to cover up a series of misdeeds by his scandal-prone daughters.
There’s enjoyment to be found watching Kenneth Branagh play Shakespeare, like watching all a man’s Christmases come at once. It’s just a shame he has to live his best life through a prosthetic nose and a faceful of beard, with the costume department clearly fixated on that one portrait of Shakespeare we’ve all seen.
Judi Dench polishes off her most imperious dame to play his wife Anne and Ian McKellen turns up looking like an Afghan hound in a plumed hat to steal the two scenes he’s in as the Earl of Southampton, the flamboyant lover who supposedly inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The problem is, Elton’s script doesn’t say very much about anything. Shakespeare’s grief for his son is touching, but we can never fully connect with his loss because Hamnet only appears as an occasional creepy hallucination asking his dad to ‘finish his story’.
Shakespeare wrote the breadth of human experience, yet as Southampton says, he lived ‘the smallest life’. Unfortunately, small lives do not make riveting films. Elton would have done better to have taken a leaf out of Shakespeare’s book and have just made something up.