During these hot, humid summer days and nights, a movie theater offers a respite and sanctuary; a bonus happens if the film offers enlightenment and entertainment — as I recently experienced with the film “All Is True,” which may or may not be shown here.
The film’s title refers to an alternate title of William Shakespeare’s play “Henry VIII,” but it relates to a theme of truth that the film explores and contrasts with Shakespeare’s daughter Judith’s protest that “Nothing is true.”
Director and actor of the lead role of Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh, has considerable experience on stage and film of Shakespeare’s plays; makeup and facial prosthetics give him an uncanny resemblance to the portrait of Shakespeare in the National Gallery.
The plot involves Shakespeare’s return to his home Stratford-on-Avon in 1613 after a 20 years’ absence during which he lived in London where he wrote and produced the bulk of his work. A fire has destroyed the Globe during a performance of “Henry VIII” after a cannon shot ignited the thatched roof and the beams, burning the theater to the ground.
Sources label “Henry VIII” a history play, this one written in collaboration with John Fletcher, who wrote tragicomedies and comedies in addition to collaborations with Shakespeare and other playwrights of his day. Having more stage directions than any of Shakespeare’s other plays makes “Henry VIII” unique.
Shakespeare never wrote another play once he retired to Stratford-on-Avon where his wife and daughters have lived without him. Shakespeare still mourns his son Hamnet, who died at age 11. His wife and daughters have dealt with their grief and moved forward, but Shakespeare regrets not being at home when his son died. Anne insists that Hamnet died of the plague, but the film suggests he may have drowned deliberately.
Hamnet’s twin, Judith, believes her father wishes she had died instead of Hamnet; Shakespeare’s wife Anne dryly observes that after Hamnet’s death, her husband wrote “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Judi Dench plays Anne Hathaway, and no one can be as acidic or as compassionate when the part demands it.
Husband and wife
While Anne is eight years older than her husband, her makeup in the film makes the age gap seem wider with Anne wrinkled and stout, contrasting with her younger-looking, athletically fit husband. On Shakespeare’s first night at home, she sends him to the guest bedroom, noting that he is more a guest, deserving of the best bed, than a family member, while she takes the second-best bed. As the film progresses, the couple reach an accord where they comfort each other in a shared bed. Shakespeare leaves her the second-best bed in his will.
Father and daughters
Kenneth Branagh pointed out in an interview that Shakespeare explores father-daughter relationships in plays like “King Lear,” “As You Like It,” and “Othello.” In the film, Shakespeare’s elder daughter Susanna, born six months after her parents’ marriage, is married to a prosperous physician, John Hall, whom the film depicts as abusive. They have a daughter, Elizabeth, but no male issue.
Judith too marries — a vintner named Thomas Quiney. In the film Quiney has fathered a child out of wedlock, causing a scandal for the Shakespeare family. The woman and child both died during childbirth. Shakespeare changed his will to protect Judith’s inheritance from her husband. Though Judith and Thomas had three children, all boys named Shakespeare, Richard, and Thomas, none of them lived beyond age 21.
A major conflict in the film — called “speculative biography” — is that Shakespeare regrets his son’s death and potential to be a writer like himself. He admires verses Hamnet wrote as a boy, not realizing that Judith composed the verses which Hamnet wrote down since she couldn’t read or write. Judith rankles under this secret and under the limitations on women who could not read the plays their husband and father wrote.
The film, rich with many lines from the plays, has a pivotal moment when Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley (pronounced like “rez-ley”), the Earl of Southampton, visits the family. Ian McKellen in this role and Branagh both recite Sonnet 29 that begins, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, / And look upon myself and curse my fate.” The next lines address the envy and inadequacy the speaker feels until in the last lines he remembers that he is loved: “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” The tension between the two men in the film resolves itself with McKellen’s recitation after which he tells Shakespeare that he must write again, that people need him.
Branagh shared in an interview that this sonnet inspired Maya Angelou to feel worthy for the first time in her life as a black, Southern female.
Shakespeare undertakes to make a memorial garden for Hamnet, acknowledging to Anne that he is not a gardener. Anne’s help in the garden brings them together in the autumnal setting, symbolic of Shakespeare’s nearing his own death three years after he returns home. At several moments in the film, Shakespeare sees and hears Hamnet’s ghost until he can put this ghost to rest.
No one knows what happened in Shakespeare’s life once he returned home, but this film offers a version that makes us yearn for happy endings: We can reconcile with our families after years of absence; we can confront grief and let go of our guilt and remorse; we can accept new versions of ourselves as we approach life’s end. A line from the film summarizes the primary theme: “If you are honest with yourself, then what you write will be true.” We can add, “what you live will be true.”
Author of 37 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare has had so much written about him that one wonders if anything new can be said. This quiet, meditative film, while not true, reveals truth nonetheless.