Kenneth Branagh plays William Shakespeare contemplating the end of his career in “All Is True,” an intriguing speculative drama about the playwright’s final years. Directed by Branagh from a sprightly script by Ben Elton, this flight of fancy never succumbs to what-if-ism for its own provocative sake. Using the known facts as their guardrails, the filmmakers concoct a credible, if not verifiable, narrative that invites as much healthy skepticism as credulity.
In 1613, Shakespeare is returning to Stratford to rejoin the family he left behind while he pursued fame and, more pointedly, fortune: He finds his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and daughters Susannah and Judith (Lydia Wilson, Kathryn Wilder) contentedly pursuing life and domestic affairs without him, having long since acclimated themselves to his absence. What’s more, they have little interest in revisiting the death of the Shakespeares’ young son Hamnet, whose loss William is only now beginning to process. “It’s not Hamlet you mourn,” Anne scolds, using the boy’s nickname. “It’s yourself.” Rather than grieve with the rest of the family when the boy died, she tartly reminds her husband, “You wrote ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ ”
Handsomely produced, every frame carefully composed with appropriately autumnal tones, “All Is True” doesn’t traffic in the antic, anachronistic wit of “Upstart Crow,” Elton’s delightful Shakespeare-centric Brit-com. The humor here is quieter, interwoven with more contemplative, even elegiac concerns, as William is forced to confront assumptions — about fatherhood, marriage, his own insecurities and ego — that he has spent a lifetime trying to outrun and out-write. The verities he thought would comfort him in his dotage turn out to be illusions of his own self-serving concoction. As the women in his life become more emboldened to stand in their truth — rather than aid and abet the Shakespeare family mythology — William realizes that he must reckon with his ghosts, including the shame and status-obsession passed down from his own disgraced father.
It sounds heavy, but Elton and Branagh don’t stint on opportunities for a few laughs, especially at the expense of William’s snobby neighbors and priggishly Puritan son-in-law. (The Bard gets to deliver a particularly satisfying riposte to a venomous neighbor named Thomas Lucy). “All Is True” is a rueful movie but finally a joyous one, as sundry loose ends are put right with a Shakespearean combination of tidiness and wishful thinking.
Although the age difference between Branagh and Dench is far greater than the eight years that separated William and Anne, that discrepancy is successfully erased by Branagh’s makeup, and a chemistry between the two actors that swiftly transcends literalistic details like chronology. Wilson and Wilder are just as convincing as siblings who for years have been competing for their father’s respect and affection, with the idealized image of their dead brother. But the crowning scene of “All Is True” comes midway through the film, when William’s patron and muse, Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellan), stops by for a visit and a fireside chat. Lit entirely by flames and candlelight, the moment is a small masterpiece of writing, direction and acting, the film’s myriad themes dancing to life like so many sparks flickering brilliantly between the two men.
Those themes have to do with the death of a golden child, unresolved guilt and grief, parental self-deception and filial ambivalence — meaning that, in myriad guises and genres, we’ve seen this movie before. With just the right amount of caprice and reverence, Branagh and Elton leave viewers with the impression, not that we’ve glimpsed the Great Man among his minions, but that even the foremost genius of the English language and his family were ordinary people.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements, suggestive material and strong language. 101 minutes.