Films about Shakespeare’s life have ranged from the delightfully frivolous (Shakespeare In Love) to the historically outrageous (Anonymous). But longtime Bard-botherer Kenneth Branagh has taken a more personal, meditative approach, building a closely observed family drama on the little that we know about history’s greatest playwright.
In 1613, a misfiring cannon during a performance of his (worst) play, Henry VIII or ‘All Is True’, burns down the Globe Theatre, and William Shakespeare (Branagh, in disappointing prosthetics) is bereft. He heads home to Stratford, where his wife Anne (Dench) and unmarried daughter Judith (Wilder) live in the splendid home that his plays have funded, near his daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and her puritanical doctor husband, John Hall (Hadley Fraser).
A contemplative drama, with more talking than conflict.
William is a distant figure to these people, an absentee father who has spent 20 years managing his theatre at the expense of his family. His attempts to resume his place as head of the household feel ill-fitting; like the coat of arms he bought to secure his status as a gentleman, they are awkward trappings he feels he should have rather than something natural.
Shakespeare’s true obsession, however, is the missing family member, Hamnet, who died at the age of only 11. His father is belatedly grieving, planning a sort of memorial garden and re-opening old wounds as he discusses Hamnet with his wife and daughters. Some of this exploration of grief seems a little forced: would Hamnet’s death be hitting so hard, 17 years after the fact? Has he truly never faced the loss before? Other subplots involving a scandalous allegation against Susanna and the question of Judith’s unmarried status give the film incident but seem curiously detached from the man himself, distractions rather than essential texture.
The biggest challenge, then, comes from an outsider, Ian McKellen’s Henry Wriothesley, Earl Of Southampton, the dedicatee of two of Shakespeare’s epic poems. In one standout scene Henry challenges Will on the smallness of his life, his lack of personal experience or drama. There’s a sense that Shakespeare is slightly baffled by the question, as if he experienced so much within his head that there was no time for more. Still, this dissection of his failings — by a man of greater social standing who, the film implies, was at least an unrequited love of Shakespeare’s — is quietly devastating, and there are further revelations to come from his wife and daughters that will also challenge his comforting assumptions.
But, as written by Ben Elton, who tackled Stratford’s finest on TV with Upstart Crowe, this is a contemplative drama, with more talking than conflict and regret rather than reproach; in that sense it recalls Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and its emphasis on non-incident. This portrait of Shakespeare ultimately agrees with Wriothesley that what happened inside his head was far more interesting than the life he lived outside it, and while it may seem slow and overly silent, perhaps it’s worth making the point that genius sometimes writes what it knows without having to live that truth first.