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ALL IS TRUE: Well, maybe not quite "all" ...


Considering the fact that Shakespeare is the world’s most famous and beloved writer, it’s amazing how little we know about him.

Oh sure, we have information on his business success, his plays, his homes, his family, his geographical movements -- even a copy of his surprisingly detailed will.

But we know next to nothing of his emotional life, social habits, ethics, personality -- the more so because his plays contain such a variety of these, it’s impossible to know which ones were his.

Kenneth Branagh’s new “All Is True” seeks to fill in some of these mysteries, providing a view of the author in later life, after he’s retired and returned to his pricey “New Place” in Stratford.

The revered Sir Kenneth is best known for his early screen versions of Shakespeare and the more recent blockbusters he directed (“Thor,” “Cinderella,” “Murder on the Orient Express”); here, he’s almost unrecognizable, sporting a Bard-like beard and receding hairline, together with a generous mane of long, unruly hair.

“All Is True” encompasses most of the things we do know about this literary wunderkind: his work in the theater; his marriage to a woman eight years older (who was pregnant at the time); how he learned so much about so much; the sonnets and whom they were addressed to; other popular writers at the time; his alleged (and probably fabricated) poaching forays onto a nearby estate; why he left his wife their “second-best bed”; and in particular the death of his son Hamnet at age 11.

In this iteration, screen-writer Ben Elton has young Hamnet working to become an author himself, leaving his father devastated by the early loss. Since Shakespeare was away in London at the time, much of “All Is True” lays out the process of delayed grief, along with recrimination from the author’s wife (Judi Dench) -- plus survivor-guilt for Hamnet’s remaining twin, Judith.

Elton provides a few twists and some bravura moments for Branagh, especially when he defends his work before his family and then later to a snooty noble. There’s likewise a nicely crafted exchange between Shakespeare and his friend the Earl of Southampton, for whom the sonnets may have been written (this role is handled with skill and nuance by the veteran Ian McKellen).

Yet while the movie is diverting enough -- well acted and nicely photographed -- I found myself at the end wondering why: Since we have no idea whether this stuff ever actually happened -- what does it really add to our knowledge of this fabulously brilliant writer, and precisely what was Branagh’s motivation?

Despite its rather grandiose title, “All Is True” turns out to be a quiet and narrowly focused film that will appeal to fans of Shakespeare, Dench and Branagh -- but not many others.


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