Kenneth Branagh continues his cinematic Shakespeare fanboying with his affectionate and sobering biopic, detailing the last three years in the author's life when he returned home to his family in the countryside after having lived away in London for the previous two decades. As his wife Anne tells him in one early scene as she declines to share her bed with him "you're more a guest here now".
Branagh approaches Shakespeare the same way that Damien Chazelle approached Neil Armstrong or Yorgos Lanthimos did Queen Anne, taking the losses of their children as the defining moment of their lives. In the many years, he was away, his son Hamnet who had been apparently showing great promise in following in his father's footsteps had been lost to the plague. Anne and their daughters have long become numb to their grief, but it is still fresh for Will, pained at losing his heir.
The portrait touches on other key factors like scandals against his daughters, female literacy, living up to his own myth already outgrowing him, the shame left him by his disreputable father and struggle to achieve legitimacy in the face of the aristocracy, but his regret is what drives the story. It finds him at a loss in the immediate aftermath of his retirement, measuring the worth of his life and of what he might do with the time that remains him.
I've read reviews that have been unkind in their interpretation of the characters of the admirers who come to visit him, and that took these interactions at face value. The grandiose praise bestowed on him is no doubt sincere and deserved, but it rings hollow in a film so aware of his clay-feet. The pressure he put on his son, the attention he deprived his wife and daughters of, his constant absences, these are not merely hand-waved away as the price of the pyramids. It is in the moments between him and his family that the film finds its true heart and he feels most a man to be loved.
I have never previously warmed to Branagh as an actor, maybe it's his frequent overacting, his hubris and ambition, the fact he was fool enough to throw over Emma Thompson, or maybe the fact he has no lips, which combined here with his bald pate, pointed beard and pencil moustache makes him look uncannily like Captain Pugwash. But there is one scene here where he reads his son's name in the registry of deaths and gives a monologue about his penknife that reduced me to tears and is perhaps the best piece of acting I've seen from him. Judi Dench plays Anne so of course the part is wonderfully played and Kathryn Wilder works hard to keep up with them as the unhappy spinster daughter Judith.
At times the shots are almost comically well composed, with low angles of characters standing into the twilight wreathed in a laurel of the auburn Acre tree behind them, exactly fitting the colour of their garb. There is an occasionally slipped line and too often verses inserted into dialogue, and particularly in the first act scenes and stories begin and end with too much sharpness leaving you wondering at their utility.
If ever the film puts you in mind of BBC's Upstart Crow it's because they have the same writer, Blackadder's Ben Elton of all people, and it's to his unexpected credit that he carries off the drama so extremely well, on top of slipping a moustache curling one-liner here and there.
I don't know how well this will do at finding an audience since it cast its rod for the Oscars but they didn't bite and it reminded me more than anything of Mr Holmes, another lovely little film that sadly sunk without trace. It is a little televisual at times but it gives the film a familial intimacy and it's that very quality that makes it so often so touching.