The life of William Shakespeare—or, more accurately, what historians know about it--is virtually a tabula rasa. Because of that, writers have been able to speculate endlessly on it—even to the extent that they can claim he was not the real author of the plays. (Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford are the most famous alternatives.) The best-known cinematic portrayal of the Bard is Shakespeare in Love, John Madden’s multiple Oscar winner from 1998, in which Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman created a scenario surrounding the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet.
Now Kenneth Branagh, who has spent his career putting Shakespeare on film, does so literally with All is True. Named after the subtitle of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, All is True begins with the conflagration that destroyed the Globe Theatre in 1613, during a performance of that play. We see Shakespeare (Branagh) from behind, watching a towering wall of fire consume the center of his life.
Rather than rebuild, Shakespeare decides to retire to Stratford, which he has barely visited the last twenty years. He would have only three years there before his death in 1616, and All Is True, with a screenplay by Ben Elton, is a tale of those years. Elton, a longtime associate of Branagh (he was a supporting player in Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing), previously wrote a TV series about Shakespeare, Upstart Crow, which I have not seen. Upstart Crow, from what I’ve heard, is very antic; All Is True is anything but, although it contains flashes of humor, such as when Shakespeare unleashes a rodomontade of insult against his enemy Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen).
All Is True finds Shakespeare becalmed, exiled to a small town he barely knows anymore, with a family he barely knows. Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) has long been used to her husband’s absence; at night she shows him to the “best bed,” the one reserved for guests, and retires to the “second-best bed” alone. (This provides Elton with a satisfying plot twist later, as to the famous codicil in Shakespeare’s will.) Shakespeare’s daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susanna (Lydia Walker) are each unhappy in their own ways. Judith, unmarried at a dangerously late age for Jacobean times, is bitter and self-castigating; Susanna is uncomfortably married to the censorious Puritan John Hall (Hadley Fraser), who thinks his father-in-law spent his life doing Satan’s work.
All are haunted by the memory of Hamnet (Sam Ellis), the only son of the family, who died many years before, aged only eleven. Shakespeare cherishes the little poems in Hamnet’s childish hand, reading them as if they were missives from an angel, and imagines that Hamnet would have been his successor as a poet and playwright. Anne, however, is less than sympathetic to her husband’s sanctified memories of Hamnet; at the time of Hamnet’s death, she reminds him, he was writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Autumnal and melancholy in tone, All Is True creates a believable final curtain for Shakespeare. It portrays him as a man who lived for decades in a world of his own creation, and is dumbfounded to find that the people who populated that world were not at all what he imagined. (This was certainly true of another English genius, Charles Dickens; see two other movies, The Invisible Woman and The Man Who Invented Christmas as proof.) Exquisitely photographed by Zac Nicholson and designed by James Merifield, All Is True is the story of a man coming to terms with his life. Nowhere does the film illustrate this better than in Shakespeare’s meeting with his old friend, patron and love interest, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen).
Wry and magisterial, Southampton has a bifurcated opinion of Shakespeare; he is in awe of him as a poet, yet dismissive of his aspirations to being Southampton’s social or romantic equal. “You forget yourself, sir!” he admonishes him. The sequence ends with Shakespeare and Southampton giving dueling recitations of Sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” It is a brilliant example of the different nuances that can be culled from a text, as well as a showcase for two of the greatest Shakespearian actors of our time. It is the best scene in the movie, and one of the best in any recent movie.
From Shakespeare, we turn to a biographical film about a writer who famously held Shakespeare in abhorrence, and who liked to beard his friend C.S. Lewis about it. To J.R.R. Tolkien, English literature ended with Chaucer. For sixty-odd years, first as student and then as professor, Tolkien lived quietly in Oxford, immersed in Old English and Norse texts as one of the greatest philologists of his time. In his spare hours, which were few, he created his own languages and the mythologies to go with them. He never sought fame, but in the last years of his life Tolkien became the most beloved modern English author, the inspiration for any number of fantasy novelists who followed. (Not everyone was pleased about this; Germaine Greer once said her recurring nightmare was that Tolkien would be the most influential writer of the 20th Century.)
Because Tolkien’s later life was so placid, any biopic would necessarily concentrate on his early years. It was then that Tolkien was beginning to discover his unique voice as a writer, and was also beset by poverty, war and separation from the only woman he ever loved. Thus Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien, with a screenplay by Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson.
Tolkien’s heirs, who have long taken a dim view of any fictional or film treatment of Tolkien and his works, have officially disavowed Karukoski’s film. It is sad to report that there is nothing in the film that might cause them to reconsider.
From its beginning, Tolkien strains mightily to connect the early experiences of Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) with the development of Middle-Earth and The Lord of the Rings. We see his early, idyllic childhood in the rural town of Sarehole Mill, and his forced move to the Stygian industrial town of Birmingham, where his mother, his last remaining parent, soon dies. The two places are presented as visions of The Shire and Mordor. Later, his circle of friends at King Edward’s Grammar School, later reunited at Oxford, form a literary society in which they indulge their love of ancient legends and heroic quests; this, as Karukoski, Gleeson and Beresford would have it, contains the seeds of the Fellowship of the Ring. It is around this time that Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) a young pianist a few years older and also like him an orphan.
Edith introduces Tolkien to music, Tolkien introduces Edith to Old English literature, and soon they are a couple. But barriers are thrown between them, of which poverty is perhaps the least. Tolkien is dependent on scholarship money to attend Oxford, and he is on shaky ground there between a few undergraduate pranks and his dismal performance in Greats, his major before he discovered philology. Also, Tolkien is Catholic but Edith is not, and Tolkien’s guardian Father Morgan (Colm Meaney) disapproves.
The dramatic crux of the film is the Battle of the Somme, in which two of Lieutenant Tolkien’s closest friends were killed and Tolkien himself contracted a severe case of trench fever. Unfortunately, it is here that the film truly fails. Karukoski, cinematographer Lasse Frank and production designer Grant Montgomery strive to make the battlefield a proto-Mordor, with visions of Sauron and Smaug. But these effects feel tacked on and even superfluous, as if the horrors of World War I were not in themselves enough. Tolkien always denied that his stories had any connection whatever with actual events, and the film doesn’t persuade us otherwise. It doesn’t help that Gleeson and Beresford give Tolkien’s loyal sergeant the name of Sam.
The makers of Tolkien, though playing fast and loose with details, stay reasonably faithful to the basic contours of Tolkien’s youth. Unfortunately, the film feels like a hundred other stories of a young man going off to war. We see Tolkien working on his stories and sketches, but it doesn’t feel intrinsic to the tale. The film shows Catholicism as the initial barrier to Tolkien’s happiness that it was, but not the great solace and inspiration to him that it also was. (Edith eventually converted to Catholicism, though she was never as devout as her husband.)
The film’s supporting characters feel generic, except for Derek Jacobi as Tolkien’s mentor Joseph Wright; Jacobi has only a few minutes of screen time, but he makes them count. Some of the individual scenes ring false; it is hard to imagine Tolkien and Edith, or any other well-bred Edwardian young people, flinging sugar cubes in a posh tearoom. The scene where Tolkien and Edith stand backstage, enthralled by a performance of Das Rheingold, rings truer—or would if the real Tolkien hadn’t explicitly disliked Wagner.
Fortunately, Karukoski got the casting of the two major characters right. Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are intensely likable actors, and they make us believe in this beleaguered young couple, even if the movie surrounding them seems rote and unimaginative. Lack of imagination is the last thing you would expect, or want, from a film biography of one of the great imaginative writers of the last hundred years.