All Is True

Last night I went to see All Is True, the new Kenneth Branagh movie written by Ben Elton.  I was motivated by curiosity more than expectation, wondering where the creator of the hilarious and erudite “Upstart Crow”  BBC sitcom series would go in revisiting the life and works of Shakespeare.

During the first fifteen minutes I found the somber lighting, lugubrious pace and bleak expressions of the familiar sprightly characters alienating, but at a certain point I got oriented to the genre and recognized Elton’s earlier constructions of Will, Anne, Judith and Hamnet presented behind tragic instead of comic masks.

By the scene of the encounter between Ian McKellen’s Southhampton and Branagh’s Shakespeare that concludes with the double recitation of sonnet 29, “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” my tears flowed along with theirs. I was stirred by its enactment of a “marriage of true minds” for whom the approach to immortality brought human limitations into highest relief.

By the end of the film this seemed its central tone and idea, brought home by the titles that followed the happy ending insisted upon by the Ben Jonson character–titles stating that the three sons of Judith, who seemed to fulfill Will’s obsessive wish for a male heir, all died as children, and by the song from Cymbeline behind the final credits:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

As I left the theatre I felt that “All is True” achieved the aspiration uttered by its protagonist: with a patent fiction to express reality–in this case the notoriously elusive reality of the author’s personality. It did that by combining the few known facts with astute readings of his work to imagine the inner and outer life of his last silent years. In the words of Jonson’s tribute, it made “My Shakespeare rise!”

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