If you are a stickler for movies being precise about facts, or if you already have preconditioned ideas about what Shakespeare’s life was like, you are going to be annoyed by this movie. Similarly, if you are impatient about indulging long strings of melancholy, you won’t last long with this film.
I am enough of a fangirl about Shakespeare, thinking of him personally as one of my heroes, that this film was fun for me. And that’s fitting, because as a film, it is really an elaborate fan fiction. A very well acted, edited, and produced, fan fiction. Oscar worthy it isn’t, but it remains true to Branagh’s list of great Shakespeare films, and is a welcome addition to his adaptations.
That doesn’t mean the film is free from negatives, but let’s take the positives and negatives together. Here’s my best rundown of the good, the bad, the ugly, and my recommendation on watching it.
As someone who makes a living asking and answering questions, I liked how the dialogue of the film had relatively side questions walk into the moment and ask the bard some of the collective “our” most commonly asked questions like “how do you do it?” and “how did you know all the things you wrote without being university educated?” The film took stabs at famous objections to Shakespeare’s genius, obviously siding with Shakespeare being not only capable, but talented in the way few people have been since, or ever will accomplish. Decidedly, Branagh is a fan of Shakespeare and supports his genius. I liked that.
Some of the answers Shakespeare gives to these questions there are ultimately weak As an example, when he says “I imagined all the things I wrote about and the truth was within myself.” Sounds very artistic, and indeed poetic, but if you study the plays you know the facts Shakeseare employs go beyond imagination and are actually quite precise suggesting he studied somewhere. Additionally, as a writer, you know nothing well written happens by accident, even by the most talented of writers. Any good writing is a lot of work. No one just sits down and writes brilliance because they’ve been tapped by God with genius. It might come more readily for some, and in Shakespeare’s case, I think he had a God-given talent not seen before or since, but he still had to work at it because he was, at the end of the day, a man. I did appreciate the frustration with these questions Shakespeare expresses. He vents some of my own annoyance with them as well, and I liked these scenes overall. Not for their ability to lay to rest the objections (can anything do that?) but because they show how much more there is to know, celebrate, and honor about Shakespeare than nailing down his education or inspirations.
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The relationship between Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare was less deep than I believe they have. Anne was portrayed as strong and dutiful and as always, Judi Dench is incredible. However, one distinction between her performance and Branagh’s is that I easily forgot I was watching Shakespeare (even as I type this I wanted to say “her performance and Shakespeare’s”) whereas I consistently thought “isn’t Judi Dench wonderful?” And had to remind myself she was telling a story about Anne Hathaway.
As far as my impression of their relationship, I would have told the story differently. (As an artist, I don’t think there’s been any film I haven’t said that about, so don’t fault Branagh or the film there) However, I always felt Anne chose her life with Will, including staying home in Stratford–where they obviously both wanted to be since he moved back there once he retired—and I don’t think she would have begrudged Shakespeare the way the movie shows. Most men at the time weren’t these “home for dinner every night” type guys, with it often being necessary–particularly in a small town, for the man of the family to travel in order to seek a fortune for the family. I think Shakespeare was home often, we do have surviving documentation suggesting he was active in the lives of his kids whenever they had problems, as well as the lives of his neighbors and the community. I don’t think he was this absent father chasing a dream at the expense of his relationships he’s now trying to salvage. That’s the fan fiction part Branagh spins here and it is melancholy to the last, complete with ample amounts of minor key piano music.
The movie assumes people know Shakespeare life facts and omits directly saying them, which I feel is a shame. I had hoped this movie would be something I could show to someone who was just now wanting to explore the life of Shakespeare and have them learn something abotu him. Unfortunately, unless you already know key details about who his wife was, who his kids were, and even the events of Judith and Susannah’s lives, (like the scandals, their marriages, and their children) then you’re going to be lost in this film, as it plows through these escapades without any explanation. Additionally, as someone who already knows these facts, the film was predictable. If I wasn’t entranced by Shakespeare himself, this film would have been rather boring.
Example: when Shakespeare writes his will to include Thomas Quiney (That annoyed me, as what I’ve read suggests Shakespeare changed his will specifically to omit Quiney and Judith after Quiney’s affair) but then when he decided to leave Anne “a piece of furniture” the scene doesn’t specify which one, which is crucial to a film plot, you’d think the romantic part would have been that. The film rather overly tried to explain the importance of the second best bed, which seemed interesting since they didn’t explain other details with as much care, and rather seemed pointless once it came time for him to include it in the will, but then didn’t say which one until the closing credits. I think this is a case of two artists differing about how to tell the story rather than a real flaw on Branagh’s part. I see what he was doing by including the second best bed in the credits. I just think if you don’t already know that part, you’ll be confused when he leaves a seemingly random piece of furniture to his wife in his will so that “when she uses it, she will smile and think of me.” That’s only sweet if you already know the story.
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Also the scandal with Thomas Quiney and Margaret Wheeler was a huge and scandalous affair and the film not only downplayed the event, but even in the film’s own comparison to Susannah’s accusation trial it was seen as this minor aside but it wasn’t- they were excommunicated and Judith isn’t buried with the family. The entire Quiney/Judith thing was rushed, and just very…..I am not sure I have words, but the sum of it is I wasn’t impressed with Judith in this film. There’s no indication to suggest she reconciled with her father (apart from perhaps her naming her first son Shakespeare), and I think she was the black sheep of the family, and this marriage to Quiney was probably not this grand welcoming into the family that the film portrays.
I appreciated and rather loved that they deal with the doubt I have about plague killing Hamnet, but I had not heard the suicide theory and was shocked by that. This was the only time in the film I felt like I was participating alongside Shakespeare to learn something new. The connections to Ophelia are plain, obviously suggesting Hamlet was an ode to his loss of Hamnet, which is weird if they are going to take the stance that he didn’t learn about the suicide until after he’d written Hamlet, I’m not sure how he could have included it so specifically. So there’s discontinuity about what they are trying to say there and perhaps side stepping that issue was intentional. There’s not any evidence for Hamnet’s death having been suicide aside from the relative low numbers of recorded plague deaths that year. This whole story line was objectionable to me but only because of what I want to believe about Shakespeare’s life, so again, take it as you will. (Pun intended).
Stepping back from the history and just examining it, the film was too sad constantly. A very heavy, very constantly sad. There are absolute torrents of minor key piano music and melancholy walks looking off in the distance. Very overdone. Gracious.
The most well done part of the film in my opinion was the telling off of Thomas of charlecote and saying he didn’t poach deer (but wished he had)! Go team Shakes! I cheered out loud.
I have never liked, nor supported, the idea that Shakespeare was in love with the Earl of Southampton romantically, or sexually. I believe those poems were written with sexual overtones that may or may not indicate a love affair by Shakespeare. I guess it is my English background, but the idea of intentional fallacy is too firmly grounded into my head. Particularly with poetry, as distinct from the personal stories you might find in a play, poems were never intended to be diaries of the author. Poems are separate from the author, and what he wrote in those poems were not intended to be taken literally, and they cannot be assumed to represent the feelings or opinions of the person who wrote them. They are are. Unlike the President of BAFTA, I do not think art and artist are cemented together as one and the same. I separate the two, and for Javier Bardiem’s sake (thinking of No Country for Old Men) I would like to think it’s true that what happens in a piece of art is not always a direct reflection of the artist. Burbage was not actually going mad when he played King Lear. However, all of my personal objections aside, if we are going to follow the narrative that Shakespeare wrote the sonnets as a love declaration to Southampton, the way the film handled it is about how it would have gone down. The quoting of the sonnets by Shakespeare and then Southampton was beautifully done. I never tire of hearing Ian McKellan perform Shakespeare, and Branagh’s quoting of those lines is masterful. I could replay that over and over. As part of this film, however, it seems like a political nod to the LGBTQ movement to include it here more than really fleshing it out as part of Shakespeare’s life. Additionally, I have my own theory about the dark lady sonnets which taints my acceptance of that scene. It did not really suggest a strong friendship there like I’d expected, but more of a fan-hero relationship from Shakespeare. From what I’ve read, their relationship was more sophisticated than perhaps this movie was able to express. Also, Shakespeare wasn’t a small man pretending to have status. Monarchs of nations were entertained at New Place after Shakespeare died (I think it’s the Queen of Spain that Susannah entertained there as the daughter of William Shakespeare). So I was insulted by some of the Earl’s remarks.
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I absolutely ugly cried when Hamnet quotes the Tempest.
I was disappointed there wasn’t time or space to establish the strong relationship between Jonson and Shakespeare. From what the movie depicts, you’d be surprised to learn that Jonson wrote the elaborate dedication to Shakespeare in the Folio. The film kind of reduced their whole relationship to a conversation. And Shakespeare catching cold from sleeping outside, I think that’s not accurate, but not impossible. More indulgence of fan fiction and theory. (It is a film).
I did not like how Jonson said he was disgraced by James I. Jonson was a boisterous, loud, confident, even nigh unto arrogant, individual and he would have been nonplussed about being arrested. Plus, by this time (1613), he had gotten back into good graces at court–which you can tell because Jonson was the one who would be chosen just two months after Shakespeare died to entertain and lead the entertainment at Whitehall for the visit of John Rolfe and Pocahontas so he mustn’t have been too tossed aside.
I was delighted by the small details, like Shakespeare planting a garden for Hamnet and using Rosemary because that plant is for remembrance in the early 17th century.
I did not appreciate how they portrayed Susanna as an adulteress who deserved the accusations of John Lane, escaping punishment by his absence. That is not how I think that scene played out in real life. I believe Susanna was falsely accused because she’s a woman and a target for calumny, and I had never before encountered the idea that Susanna and John Hall were unhappily married. Many historians I’ve spoken with indicate the relationship between Hall and Shakespeare was a much better one than the film portrays, with Shakespeare learning about plants from John Hall which was completely omitted in the film despite Shakespeare planting a garden.
His funeral was short and despite again using rosemary, I don’t think Shakesepare had a coffin. I had a guest on the podcast suggest to me that modern historians don’t think he was buried in a coffin like the movie shows but instead only a shroud.
I like how the film tries to portray only facts about Shakespeare’s life and piece together what we do know at least the strongest bites. I can respect this film, I will always be loyal to Branagh as I can only hope to ever do as much for Shakespeare’s legacy as he continues to do, and ultimately, as a Shakespearean, I enjoyed the trip into Shakespeare’s past the story afforded me, even if it was a fanciful one.
It is worth seeing, just for Branagh’s performance alone, and will spark good conversation about Shakespeare; specifically about his history. As discussing the life of William Shakespeare is important to me, I welcome All Is True into the arsenal of Shakespeare films we enjoy.
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