William Shakespeare has come home to Stratford-upon-Avon in “All Is True,” there to find a sea of troubles.
His eldest daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is trapped in a loveless marriage to a spiteful churl (Hadley Fraser) who loathes the theater, of all things, thanks to his strict Puritan beliefs and who impatiently waits for his father-in-law, the most lauded playwright of his age, to kick the bucket so he can inherit his rich estate.
Unmarried younger daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is a roiling ocean of resentment thanks to the fact her father is still extravagantly mourning the death of her 11-year-old twin brother, Hamnet, ”my brilliant, brilliant boy” 10 years before. Dad always liked him best because he saw in the lad a nascent writing talent to match his own.
Finally, long-neglected wife Anne (Judi Dench) is steamed over those famous love sonnets that effuse over the mysterious Dark Lady and the Fair Youth. She knows neither refers to her, and she has her suspicions that the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), one of her husband’s most vocal admirers, is the object of his affections.
Woes aplenty, for sure.
Shakespeare, who has mostly been away in London for 20 years writing his way into the history books, is unprepared for the slings and arrows of family misfortune that come his way when he leaves the footlights behind after his beloved Globe Theatre burns to a crisp in 1613 during the first performance of his latest (and last) play “All is True” (aka “Life of Henry VIII”).
As the Bard, Kenneth Branagh, who also directs, is virtually unrecognizable with a high forehead-revealing hairline and spadelike beard. He looks like Shakespeare of the picture books. And, of course, his credentials to play the great man are well-established as he’s directed and/or starred in a string of Shakespeare-based pictures since “Henry V” in 1989. But here, working from original material (Ben Elton wrote the screenplay, which freely speculates on the particulars of Shakespeare’s final years), he gives us a glum soap opera filled with sullen faces worn by people mired in miseries.
His Shakespeare is defensive about his fame, taking to task a mocking Stratfordite who denigrates his accomplishments by replying that he’s created a thriving theatrical industry in London. He’s baffled and buffeted by his family’s various travails and guilt-ridden in the extreme over having been absent for his cherished son’s death and funeral.
The despair is overflowing, with Wilder carrying the most water in that regard as the embittered Judith scorches her father for having emotionally neglected her throughout her life. That bitterness is further fueled by a long-held secret that goes to the heart of her father’s worshipful relationship to his dead son.
The movie does have some quietly powerful scenes, particularly one between Shakespeare and McKellen’s earl in which the playwright edges up to declaring his love for the other man only to be gently but firmly rebuffed.
“All Is True” is handsomely mounted, filled with shadowed interiors underscoring the darkness of its story, the darkness artfully interrupted by candlelight and firelight.
The movie’s impressive appearance notwithstanding, Shakespeare’s domestic problems do not a classic make.
★★½ “All Is True,” with Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Hadley Fraser, Ian McKellen. Directed by Branagh, from a screenplay by Ben Elton. 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material and language. Opens June 21 at multiple theaters.