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High Bard: All Is True Offers a Compelling Look at William Shakespeare’s Life After Playwrighting 

click to enlarge SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Sony Pictures Classics

Actor, director and five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh has William Shakespeare running through his veins. Not since filmmaking icon Orson Welles has anyone captured the breadth and passion for the works of the English playwright with such confidence and vibrancy. From his 1989 directorial debut in Henry V, which earned him Academy Award nods for Best Director and Best Actor, to his inspired interpretations of Much Ado About Nothing in 1992 and Hamlet in 1996, Branagh set the bar incredibly high for subsequent and future films based on Shakespeare’s work.

Branagh tries something a bit different in his latest Shakespearian drama All is True. Instead of adapting one of the bard’s plays like he has done in the past, Branagh explores the man himself by not only directing a film about the final years of Shakespeare’s life, but also transforming into him to play the lead role.

Unrecognizable behind makeup and prosthetics (and eerily resembling actor Sir Ben Kingsley), Branagh is incredible as the genius writer who historians say spent his retirement years living with his family in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. As the film points out in its opening scenes, Shakespeare returns to Stratford after his London theater, the Globe, burned to the ground in 1613. Shakespeare would die three years later.

In All is True, English screenwriter Ben Elton (U.K. TV’s Upstart Crow) combines fact, educated assumptions and some creative license to tap into Shakespeare’s head as he readjusts to his surroundings and attempts to find purpose in life after he lays down his quill. Part of this includes finally confronting and mourning the death of his son Hamnet, who historians say died of the bubonic plague as a child.

Branagh is not alone in his extraordinary depiction of a quiet life in Stratford. Unsurprisingly brilliant is Oscar-winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) as Anne, Shakespeare’s wife, as are Lydia Wilson (Never Let Me Go) and Kathryn Wilder (TV’s Frontier), who play his two daughters, Susannah and Judith. Wilder is especially intriguing in her role as the single, self-critical and seemingly unhappy Judith, who shares a tumultuous relationship with her father.

In one of the most delightful conversations in a film this year, two-time Oscar nominee Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters) turns up in a cameo as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of South Hampton, a patron of Shakespeare who some believe was the subject of a number of the bard’s love sonnets. The single scene is simply immaculate.

Overall, the film’s sincere appreciation for Shakespeare not as just a writer, but as a human being, is palpable. It proves that the world really is a stage and that Branagh deserves to be under the brightest spotlight.

All is True opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro June 7.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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