Ben Elton has written a sweet-natured, melancholy film about the retirement years of someone he’s lately been turning into his specialist subject: William Shakespeare. The great poet is played here with genial sympathy by the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, sporting a pretty outrageous false nose. Judi Dench is his wife Anne Hathaway, wearied into resilient impassivity by grief, the unfairness of life and an awful secret. Ian McKellen has a colossal, emphatically wigged cameo as the ageing Earl of Southampton.
All Is True is sentimental, theatrical, likable – and unfashionable. There’s a cheekily imagined backstory for Shakespeare’s famous “second-best bed”. It doesn’t go for grand gestures or big subversive laughs, like John Madden’s romance Shakespeare In Love (1998) or Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare-was-a-fraud caper Anonymous (2011), or in fact Elton’s own rather brilliant and under-recognised TV Bardcom Upstart Crow which features David Mitchell as Shakespeare, Liza Tarbuck as Anne Hathaway and Helen Monks as his stroppy daughter Susanna. Upstart Crow boldly tackled the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet at the age of 11 and Elton reopens that wound now, making it the emotional centre of his film. There are certain structural similarities between All Is True and Upstart Crow, although William and Anne are more muted and autumnal here. The stroppiness of the daughter – in this case Judith, sister of Susanna – continues unabated, but is repurposed dramatically. Dench is enigmatic and stoic as Anne; and Kathryn Wilder is an angry and unreconciled Judith. She has some serious issues with her absent patriarch.
Some may prefer Upstart Crow. I found myself thinking of a speech I saw Elton give in the 90s. He was introduced by AN Wilson, who mischievously pointed out that Elton’s uncle was the historian Geoffrey Elton, but claimed that Sir Geoffrey’s studies of Tudor England were far less interesting than Ben Elton and Richard Curtis’s TV series Blackadder in its Elizabethan phase. Elton bounded on stage, saying: “Poor Uncle Geoff. Dead two years and still getting bad reviews.”