Again with the Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh!
This time it’s not a movie version of a work by the bard, but rather, a close encounter with him along fault lines predicting a fractious interlude. You may wince at taking in so much of him at such close range, where too much information, some factual, some fabulist, and some speculative, answers questions it might never have occurred to you to pose!
After the 1613 fire that destroyed London’s Globe Theatre, a retired Shakespeare returns to his birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, as citizen Will (if you will.) He falls victim to the folly that as a conquering hero, his soul will be Rocked in the Bosom of Warwickshire. As many who retrace their steps back to the home place find, family and townsfolk with whom you are once again cheek to jowl, have little use for a returnee, let alone this one, the world’s most famous literary figure! As Will and family face related challenges, slander, and scorn, he waxes less the hero and more a prophet without honor, who is up to his neck in the river he has stepped into twice.
Much of the scorn is lobbed at him by his daughter Judith (played vengefully by Kathryn Wilder.) She is the twin of Will’s deceased son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), who during a hallucination conversation with his father, lets on that Dad doesn’t have the full skinny yet, but is certain to by the film’s end (no spoilers here!)
Dench plays an Anne Hathaway who, along with her daughter
and most women commoners of the period, is illiterate. Her husband Will’s extended
absences have given her plenty of free time to invent a pet rationale for his inattentiveness.
Hers is an accusing yet blithely forgiving construct, colored by a resolute belief
in God’s will, which she has given herself license to pinion to the celebrity
of her Will.
She plays the hand God dealt her with the now-bristling, now-capacious conviction that if all’s fair, fate will turn up the winning suit. If in bygone days Will was her dance-away lover, now she has him cornered, and plays her advantage judiciously. In the process, Dench lets it be known that her husband doesn’t much like the company of women. In today’s mania to label and categorize sexuality by nuclear family-sanctioned or proscribed sets of behaviors, it’s easy to misread motives of those whom we decide are bi-sexual, as the film (and more authoritative sources) hints that Shakespeare was.
Indeed, the most dignified exchange takes place between Will and his patron, The Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). Finding himself squarely in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Will freely unburdens himself of a catalogue of hopes and regrets. That intimate moment notwithstanding, isn’t it also possible that the bi-sexual tag gives short shrift to the individual who carries no bias, leaning, or orientation into the sexual sphere? This would be the one who owns up to a need to give and receive universally, a wish that asserts itself baldly, not inflected into speciously anointed “cultures.”
Though a consummate tactician, daughter Judith displays less tact than her mother. She plays for keeps, saving her ace in the hole for the final round. Will was not witness to his son’s death. Narrative about that turn-key event, for which there is no verifiable source, is adduced as fact in accounts by Hathaway and Judith. A climate of doubt is reinforced by significant scenes shot under a veil of pre-electrification darkness, where firelight offers only a flicker of illumination. One such darkened scene after another adds hopelessness to a backdrop of ignorance. Against these barriers Shakespeare fights for easement, so that he may shed light on all that is (mostly) true about the lives he sired and the one he led.
This film, which couldn’t be more magnificent if each scene were hand-painted, will leave you with much to question and investigate. See it with friends and have in mind a café to repair to afterward for a lively discussion. All the world’s a stage, and so far in this millennium, life is a tale told (and trolled) by a vidiot.