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All Is True

On stage and screen, Sir Kenneth Branagh has devoted a considerable amount of blood, sweat and iambic pentameter to ensuring Shakespeare's plays are widely accessible. His celebrated film adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet garnered Oscar nominations and a year-long season of plays at the Garrick Theatre in London in 2015 and 2016 included acclaimed productions of The Winter's Tale and Romeo And Juliet. It should come as no surprise that Branagh juggles duties behind and in front of the camera for this intimate drama set in 1613, the year that the Globe Theatre in London burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII. Scripted by Ben Elton, All Is True dramatises a twilight year in the Bard's life, when ghosts of the past literally and figuratively haunt the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon as he contends with rivalry between his daughters and his shortcomings as a husband. Historical rigour is tossed out of the window with a hey nonny nonny when it comes to casting. Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway was eight years older than her husband but here, she is portrayed with warmth by Dame Judi Dench. Similarly, Henry Wriothesley, supposedly the "beautiful boy" in Shakespeare's gushing sonnets, is embodied with lip-smacking glee by a wigged Sir Ian McKellen. In reality, the third Earl of Southampton was nine years Shakespeare's junior. A fireside conversation between the two men in the final 20 minutes is the film's standout sequence. "It is not your place to love me," admonishes Wriothesley. As flames lick the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare (Branagh) gallops back to the heaving bosom of Warwickshire, where he is a stranger to his wife Anne (Dench) and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Wilson). Unable to write, Shakespeare turns his hand to creating a memorial garden to his deceased son Hamnet (Sam Ellis). "You mourn him now," laments Anne. "At the time, you wrote The Merry Wives Of Windsor!" Meanwhile, Susanna clashes with her husband, puritanical physician John Hall (Hadley Fraser), and Judith rebuffs the advances of incorrigible ladies' man Tom Quiney (Jack Colgrave Hirst). Adopting the alternative title of Henry VIII, All Is True doesn't let facts get in the way of spinning a melancholic yarn. Branagh sports facial prosthetics and make-up to achieve the distinctive profile of his scribe, who is weighed down with grief. Dench purses her lips as the illiterate spouse, who bears the deep wounds of her husband's infatuation with Wriothesley. "All this time you've worried about your reputation," she scolds. "Have you once worried about mine?" Pacing is sluggish and the mystery of Hamnet's death feels unnecessarily protracted but there is a satisfying pay-off to the intrigue. All's well that ends sombrely.