By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

The world of literature and the arts is replete with apocryphal writing, stories, myths, paintings and plays.  Two such mysteries: who is that lady behind the enigmatic smile who answers to the name “The Mona Lisa”? The other vexing mystery over the last 400 hundred years has been did Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the English speaking world really write all  the great works with which he is credited?

Well, if you asked British actor, director, producer, playwright and Shakespeare scholar Kenneth Branagh , he would reassure you that Shakespeare, did indeed, pen those incredible works, perhaps, with a little help from the playbooks of  Greek playwrights of some 2000 thousand years ago. It’s been said, if you have to “borrow”, always borrow from the best.  Shakespeare did. Shakespeare has been scrupulously vetted over the centuries and always comes away with his reputation intact. They’re all his creations.  Now its “settled law” as the lawyers say.

British actor, director, producer, playwright, and Shakespeare scholar Kenneth Branagh-Photo credit: Pat Krause

Director Branagh brought his latest film “All is True”, a bittersweet achingly poignantly written drama by Ben Elton, about the genius that was Shakespeare to the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival.  Audiences were treated to an illuminating Q & A session following the screening with Branagh delivering a tutorial on Shakespeare the man and writer following the festival’s opening Night film.

Many a film has tried to capture the genius that was William Shakespeare.  But films usually depict him in his earlier life.  “Shakespeare in Love” was a fictionalized vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judy Dench and Geoffrey Rush , that won acting Oscars for Paltrow, Dench, and Rush, as well walking away with the Best Film Oscar of 1999.

Where “Shakespeare in Love” was a glitzy, up- beat, rom-com love story, punctuated with clever dialogue, Branagh’s somber, examination of a genius reflecting on his old age and retirement from a life in the theatre that  speaks to a much more prickly character study of a literary giant before being labeled as such in his legacy by others.  Branagh introspectively portrays The Bard of Avon as he has never been portrayed.  The writer Elton and director Branagh combine to reveal his insecurities, when it came to his talent imagined or real.  Yes, even the greatest of gifted and talented creative artists have doubts too.

The first ten minutes in ”All is True” however, failed to engage me in its very spare storyline. The pacing was glacial and off-putting.  This is a production that relies somewhat on knowing, or at least, possessing a passing acquaintance with the Shakespeare canon.  However, once we we’re able to relate to the thrust of Elton and Branagh’s storyline covering his obsessions, his regrets, his interior life, things pick up.

The film is remarkable in its use of prosthetics and makeup to turn actor Kenneth Branagh into William Shakespeare. There were not many paintings of the Bard which adds to his mystique.  All of that is washed away when Branagh, reveals to the audience that here we have the greatest author in the English-speaking world exposing his frailties and doubts for all to see; warts and all.

It’s 1613.  The Globe Theatre has burned to the ground and he retires to his family home in Stratford-upon-Avon.  There his long-suffering wife Anne Hathaway (Judy Dench) and his scandal-plagued and resentful daughters (Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson) await him, and he is haunted by the ghost of his son Hamnet (Hadley Fraser) who died at 11 years of age. It’s easier now to connect the dots from Hamnet to Hamlet, the melancholy Dane who also saw his father on the Danish Castle battlements with Horatio.

There is one absolutely deliciously coded scene with Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, where the two men recall their early days bathed in unrequited love sonnets from Shakespeare to the Earl.  This scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. The sublime exchanges fairly crackle with a controlled sexual electricity.  It’s a side of the private Shakespeare not generally known by the public.  In the 1ate 18th 19th and 20th centuries, it was referred to as the Englishman’s vice. It ensnared Oscar Wilde ending his playwriting career. The law was removed from the books in 1968.

Kenneth Branagh’s spare 17th century film is true to its period.  The film’s photography and illumination source is generated by candle light (much like Kubrick’s sweeping epic “Barry Lyndon”). It’s a little smoky but definitely thrusts the viewer into the reality of life in 17th century England.  Aficionados of British historical novels and films should lap it up for its authenticity.  Branagh, as a film director, impressed me with his very cinematic version of Shakespeare “Henry V”, which I still remember from its opening scene of his 1989 film “Henry V”.

A large door swings open in the background and Branagh wearing his crown and regal cape is seen silhouetted against the blinding white sky in a long shot. I leaned toward my business partner and said, “wow! “This is going to be a great historical two-hour ride”.  Nobody does period pieces like the Brits.  It’s in their DNA.  It’s a must see film when it goes into distribution.

In the meantime, check out the many fine films now being screened at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival through January 13th.  It’s a wide world out there with many cultures to explore without ever leaving Palm Springs. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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