It was only a matter of time before Kenneth Branagh, the still-living film actor most popularly identified with Shakespeare, portrayed the Bard himself on screen, and for what it’s worth and despite the stupid schnozz, there’s something heartening and even a bit surprising in his impersonation, namely an effort to confound any sort of expectations. Branagh’s Shakespeare, caught at the end of his life, after he’s retired from writing and managing his theater company, is a man who not only knows his worth, but likely understands his place in history, and Branagh plays this aspect without the kind of hindsight navel-gazing one usually gets in the biopics of “great men in their twilight,” but rather with a wistfully sad acknowledgment that it means very little if you’re not around to enjoy it. And that’s something we all have to address, even if we aren’t famous and world-changing. On the other hand, the movie itself feels like a greatest hits collection of rumored moments that never quite deliver the pleasures promised.
The main plot point is that Will, after returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from his decades-long self-exile as an artist and businessman in London following the destruction of the Globe Theater in a fire, reckons with the fact that he has no male heir, since his only son died as a child. His older wife, Anne (Judi Dench), who won’t let him forget her years alone as he pursued the tanshin funin life, and his two daughters, Susanna (Lydie Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), who know they can’t compete, emotionally or legally, with the memory of their dead brother, are, at first, no comfort to him, and he tries to channel his melancholy into gardening, a pastime that amuses neighbors and fans, who treat him as if he were an aging rock star. By itself, this plot line is rich with possibility, but the script by Ben Elton keeps getting sidelined by distractions, the most satisfying of which is a brief sequence when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) drops in to remind Will, and the audience, that he was once the target of some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated love sonnets, a legendary story that’s elevated to “did-he-or-didn’t-he” status by the conviction evident in the chemistry between Branagh and McKellen. Nevertheless, it feels gratuitous, as if it were something that Branagh & Elton felt had to be covered even if it didn’t fit into the story.
In that regard, the subplot about Judith marrying a local tradesman, mainly to provide her father with a male heir, feels more central to Branagh’s theme, which is that the survival of the work didn’t mean as much to Shakespeare as his name being passed on through the patriarchy. This hint of sexist privilege is emphasized by his initial resistance to Judith’s attempt at writing poetry, which is essentially a larger gloss on his neglect as a family man. It’s understandable that Shakespeare was a flawed human being, but Branagh attempts to force the matter of his redemption in the end, which feels false and frivolous. When offering up a personal theory of a man’s life, it’s best to stick to one story.
Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).
All Is True home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 TKBC Limited