You haven’t really lived until you’ve watched William Shakespeare garden in his old age, and thanks to “All Is True,” you finally can. The British art house film, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, brings to life the years just before Shakespeare’s death — the part we don’t usually read about in high school English classes.
The film, which was released in the United States on May 10, takes place in England in the early 17th century, shortly after the Globe Theatre burned to the ground, taking with it the remains of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright. The fire occurred during a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” which was alternatively titled “All Is True,” the namesake for this picturesque tale.
After the tragedy, the Bard moved back home from London to live with his family at Stratford-upon-Avon in the countryside. He never wrote another play but instead picked up the perfect “I’m at the end of my career and also my life” hobby: gardening. In beautiful wide-swept shots, the film’s cinematography follows Shakespeare as he carries out his newfound pastime, purely capturing each corner of the Shakespearean estate as it does so.
Various elements of the film grant it a classic, “Downton Abbey”-esque tone. The sound design enhances the film’s intensity throughout, with the audio mixed such that the quietest closing of a door or passing by of a horse is enough to capture the audience. And while the coloring of the film is often quite dark, it fits the antique tone of the imagery well, as the directed candlelight or simply natural lighting matches the era.
Not only is the visual composition engaging and romantic, but the dialogue also holds a dreamy rhythm to match the great writer’s style. Some of Branagh’s dialogue, like the line “I’ve lived so long in imaginary worlds, I’ve lost sight of what is real,” emulates melodramatic words Shakespeare probably would have written into his own plays.
The true emotion and chaos of this film come out in the familial relationships between Shakespeare, his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and their two children, Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson). In Branagh’s rendition, returning to Stratford-upon-Avon allows Shakespeare to finally mourn the loss of his son, Hamnet, years prior, which he was unable to do during his fast life in London. The film shows Shakespeare’s strained relationship with his family as he works through his grief.
In the film, Shakespeare’s return impacts his daughters, especially Judith, as they believe that their father grieves largely because Hamnet was his only son. While Shakespeare is shown as nurturing toward his daughters, the classic case of misunderstanding between fathers and daughters seems to not have changed much since the 17th century.
These kinds of gender roles are exhibited uniquely in this film, as Susanna’s domesticity and submissive nature contrast widely with Judith’s staunch feminist attitude and stubbornness — it’s easy to say that Judith is much ahead of her time. Judith’s frustration with her repressed freedom often manifests as her being overdramatic — which she is, but after all, she is a Shakespeare.
If there’s any reason to watch “All Is True,” it’s for the very parts that make a Shakespeare play entertaining: biting insults, dysfunctional families and Victorian scandal. But if you’re looking for another push, consider watching for gay Shakespeare. William Shakespeare’s sexuality has been debated for centuries, and this movie, in one of its best twists, is supportive of a bisexual Shakespeare.
In one scene, the film alludes to a romance between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), with the two talking about the sonnets Shakespeare wrote for the earl. The representation of LGBTQ+ characters in period pieces is a rare find, unless you’re watching “The Favourite,” and “All Is True” delicately alludes without making any assured statements.
The film ends with Shakespeare’s death on his birthday in 1613. And while the movie showcases every fight and tear the family experienced in his last years, it concludes that bonds were strengthened and love was shown in the Shakespeare household. “All Is True” ultimately shows that nothing is ever true, that even the most poetic of writers has layers and, perhaps most of all, that all the world is indeed a stage.