Kenneth Branagh is a sought-after director again after showing box office muscle with a superhero (“Thor”), a superprincess (“Cinderella”) and a superdetective (“Murder on the Orient Express”), so it was only a matter of time before he returned to his favorite movie genre: superplaywright William Shakespeare, last adapted by Branagh for 2007’s “As You Like It.”
His latest is “All Is True,” which Shakespeare buffs will know as the alternate title of his final play, “Henry VIII.” Branagh’s film is not an adaptation, however, but rather a fitfully engaging, well-intentioned but disappointing original biographical drama starring a prostheticized, forehead-enhanced Branagh as the Bard himself in his final, home-bound years after laying down his pen for good in 1613.
Twenty years ago, audiences devoured (the non-Branagh-made) “Shakespeare in Love,” which fancifully imagined the genius behind some of literature’s most memorably knotty romances starring in his own. Branagh’s affectionate if labored wade into this realm, written by Ben Elton, is essentially “Shakespeare in Retirement,” offering a scenario in which greatness comes to terms with legacy, responsibility and a long-ago family tragedy — the death 17 years prior of the playwright’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, who Will believed showed promise as a poet.
Settling into middle class domesticity in Stratford-upon-Avon after two decades away in London — his two big projects are a memorial garden for Hamnet and securing a grandson from either of his daughters — Will discovers simmering tensions, both at home and in town. His illiterate wife, Anne (Judi Dench), abandonment etched into her pursed face, is embarrassed by the infidelity suggested by his sonnets. Daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, mopes and snipes like the failed surviving child she sees herself as. Older daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson), married to a scheming Puritan (Hadley Fraser), is at the center of town gossip after she’s accused of infidelity.
None of this is played for open melodrama, however. Nor is it ripe for the notoriously biting comedy Elton is known for from his English history Britcoms “Blackadder” or his current Bard-inspired British hit “Upstart Crow,” a hilarious and willfully anachronistic insult-fest about the midcareer Shakespeare as a put-upon writer-husband-dad. Rather, the tone of “All Is True” is of plainspoken wit and simple earnestness, suggesting a Great Man of History theory whereby Shakespeare’s genius is less mystifying if read as a combination of hard work, basic decency and that fertile imagination. That recipe is mixed with enough swings between flaws and self-deprecation in Branagh’s agreeable portrayal that it avoids playing like a pilot for something called “Bard Knows Best.”
But while it’s all handsomely mounted, from the painterly countryside and candlelit interiors in Zac Nicholson’s cinematography to the typically tasteful Patrick Doyle score, “All Is True” is mostly a high-culture plod, a winding-down story that feels depleted before it can ever get started reconfiguring our sense of a famously under-documented life. Branagh’s direction is, as ever, suffused with a caretaker’s determination — in this case, a curious proscenium staging to many scenes, and cloyingly still compositions — rather than a poet’s artfulness.
There is one wonderfully allusive, fizzy and poignant scene featuring a majestically bewigged Ian McKellen as the visiting Earl of Southampton, a figure whose enigmatic relationship to Shakespeare may have inspired his most love-besotted verses. Their fireside exchange, a wryly touching remembrance between artist and subject, between the flame-tinged past and an ember-strewn present, hints at what “All Is True” maybe should have been all along: a play.
If the goal was to bring a genius to earth, to celebrate the recognizably human in humanity’s richest chronicler, then the decorousness of movies is as unnecessary as it was pre-cinema, when Shakespeare’s words and stories needed little but the generosity of great acting in a welcome room. Watching Branagh and McKellen in gently dueling versions of Sonnet 29 provides that pleasure; the rest of “All Is True,” unfortunately, strains to honor its beloved subject.
‘All Is True’
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, suggestive material and language
When: Now playing
Where: ArcLight La Jolla, Landmark Hillcrest
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes