“It’s not Hamnet you mourn; it’s yourself.”
Kenneth Branagh has always had an affinity for Shakespeare’s works. He has appeared in, written, and/or directed several screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Now, in All Is True, he portrays William Shakespeare in his years of retirement. To be sure, there is a great amount of conjecture in the script by Ben Elton, but that allows us to see this not just as a look back in time, but as an exploration of our own transitions in life.
The film opens with the Globe theater being destroyed by fire during the premiere of Henry VIII (which had an alternative title of All is True) in 1613. He returns to the family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is greeted somewhat coldly by his wife Anne (Judy Dench) and daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder). While Shakespeare has been having a successful career in London, his family has seen little of him. As Anne tells him, “To us, you’re a guest.” (This she says while sending him to the guest room, because it has the best bed which befits a visitor.)
It is not just because of his long absence that William is somewhat estranged from his family. He is also still grieving the death of his son Hamnet, Judith’s twin, who died many years before as a child. William has idealized his son’s memory, and is visited by Hamnet’s ghost on occasion. Meanwhile Judith suffers from survivor’s guilt, which is a part of why she is still unmarried. Shakespeare’s other daughter, Susanna, is married to the local doctor, John Hall (Hadley Fraser), who is a Puritan. He sees the family as a bit of a challenge from his dour religious perspective.
On one level, this is the story of a man who has reached a point in life that he feels he wants to retire. He has returned home, hoping to reconnect with a family that has grown away from him. He’s also not quite sure what to do with his time, so be begins a garden as a memorial to Hamnet. After a lifetime of mental and verbal creativity, this physical work brings a new way of creating something. As a retired person, I appreciate the bit of uncertainty of what retired life should entail and how he can bring meaning to the time when one no longer is “productive” in the eyes of the world.
He is also facing a somewhat common experience of discovering how much of his family’s life he has missed by concentrating on his career. The fact that he could not be there for Hamnet’s funeral weighs heavy on him. But he also does not really know his grown daughters and their lives.
There is also a bit of a love story as William reconnects with his family, and especially Anne. Some may know that in his will, Shakespeare left his wife his “second best bed”. In the film, this is seen as a touching, loving, and perhaps a bit humorous act, that shows how much their relations grows during this film.
But it is also an examination of what constitutes truth. Shakespeare wrote a number of historical plays, but as he says in the film, “I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” But there are many discoveries of truth throughout the film that bring the question of truth to the fore. Not least of which is the recounting of Hamnet’s death and what that means to various members of the family. There are also scandals that crop up around both of his daughters, and a history of scandal with William’s father. All of these may call for a hiding of the truth, to create a more satisfactory understanding of what has happened. (Not unlike the creation of this script from some historical points in Shakespeare’s later years.)
The film’s title pushes us to consider whether indeed “all is true” or as is stated at one point in the film, “nothing is true”. As the various truths within the story are hidden or revealed they create a reality that must then be addressed. The question becomes not so much what is or is not true, but rather what is the truth that we live in?
Photos by Robert Youngson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics