You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that it was the once-was-hip, in-your-face comic Ben Elton who wrote this thoughtful, multi-layered, and historically intriguing piece about William Shakespeare’s later years. Retiring in 1613, following the fire that saw the Globe Theatre burn to the ground, and finding himself at a loss at his home in Stratford, Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) devoted himself to gardening while still in deep mourning for his young son Hamnet, who’d died 17 years earlier. Though not estranged, the time he had spent in London working on his plays had distanced him from his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and spinster daughter (Kathryn Wilder), so the movie is primarily about their rapprochement and the great man’s acceptance of the truth about his son. Director Branagh lays his cards on the table when he has a wannabe writer approach Shakespeare and, instead of seeking his advice, asks, ‘How did you know everything?’ And it is fair question, too, for Shakespeare managed like no other to navigate ‘the geography of the soul’. His reply was, basically, if you can imagine it, it is true. But the scene that probably defines the man most clearly comes when Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) – believed to be, as a younger man, the subject of some of Shakespeare’s love sonnets – visits his old friend. He highlights Shakespeare’s ordinariness, his small, even timid life, despite the fact that he is unarguably the supreme genius of the realm. It is a revelation of intense poignancy, exposing the man as well as the class-riddled society that made him thus. The narrative proceeds before the backdrop of the new Puritanism sweeping the land and, perhaps a tad anachronistically, Judith’s rebellion against her womanly status as a mere chattel in the patriarchy, demanding as she does that she be recognised for what she has written. Candlelit for much of the time, and with exquisitely detailed costume design, this is both a visual and intellectual treat. And who knew the etymology of penknife?
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