Review : Most of All Is True Is Probably Not True

When Shakespeare geeks heard that Sir Kenneth Branagh would be bringing us a story of Shakespeare’s final years, written by Ben Elton (who brought us Upstart Crow and Blackadder) and starring Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, hearts skipped more than a few beats. How could it be anything other than a dream come true?  A modern Shakespeare movie to replace Shakespeare In Love in the “Shakespeare fan fiction” movie pantheon. All in all, I liked it. Parts I liked a lot. Parts I loved. My wife liked it, my kids liked it. But I don’t think it will be remembered as a great movie.

We open in 1613 after the Globe has burned down.  The text tells us that Shakespeare never wrote another play. We instead return to Stratford Upon Avon, where he’s basically gone to retire and be with his family again. His reputation follows him – both as the world’s greatest writer, but also as the son of his disgraced father. Both fans and enemies alike follow him around and annoy him.

Judi Dench is excellent as Anne Hathaway when she stops Shakespeare from coming into the bedroom, telling him, “Twenty years, Will.  You can’t just back and pick up like everything is normal. You’re a guest here.”  Later she’ll have more speeches about what it was like to be married to the world’s greatest writer and not know how to read, or how she felt when someone else read the sonnets to her. Answers to the “second-best bed” question are given but I didn’t find them satisfactory.

The daughters also do an excellent job, but Judith is given much more to work with. Susannah is already trapped in an unhappy marriage to a Puritan, while Judith still lives at home and is an angry young lady who has no problem shouting things like, “Why don’t you just say it, father? The wrong twin died.”  Yikes. Her relationship to Thomas Quiney was played brilliantly, I thought, and could easily have been the subplot of any modern drama.

That’s basically your plot – man ignores his family for twenty years, during which time his only son dies, and in his final years, he tries to set things right. One daughter is trapped in an unhappy marriage, one is rebelling at every opportunity, and his wife, their mother, is just trying to keep it all together in the name of reputation and honor. There’s some really heavy-handed symbolism right out of the gate where he says, “I think I’ll plant a garden.” Later, “I’m not a very good gardener…” and you can just imagine how it goes from there. Oh look, people came to help him… and so on.

There’s enough Shakespeare bio here to appease the fans.  All the important areas are touched on – what did Anne think about the sonnets? What was Shakespeare’s relationship to Henry Wriotheseley?  The coat of arms, the glove making, even Thomas Lucey’s poached ponies are referenced. Stuff is quoted, from sonnets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titus Andronicus makes an appearance. To the extent where you want to see this movie just to count the references, it’s enjoyable.  Whenever there was a pause in the dialogue I’d do my own filling in the blanks for the kids. “Ok, that must be Thomas Quiney, look for him to do something that dishonors the family name and for Shakespeare to change his will…”

The problem, ultimately, is that everybody making this film knows that they are riding a line between “Here’s what we know” and “Here’s what we don’t, so we’re going to fill in the blanks.” Most of that “blank” surrounds Hamnet’s death and Shakespeare’s dealing with it (with second place going to “how could all the women in Shakespeare’s life be illiterate?” and third “what exactly was Shakespeare’s relationship to the Earl of Southampton?”)  The more time they spent on Hamnet, the more I thought, “See, now, this is the stuff they’re just making up.”  Hamnet wrote poems! Shakespeare and Hamnet had a favorite pond they used to walk to!  How lovely … for an audience like my wife, who doesn’t know which parts of the story are true and which are not, so for her it’s basically all true and she can let herself enjoy it. But for those of us that are keeping a running fact checker in their heads because we can’t turn it off, the more time they spent in made up land, the weaker the movie becomes.

See the problem? They built the entire movie around Shakespeare’s relationship to his lost son.  In that context, we learn about his relationship with his own father, and with his daughters, and with their children. But there’s that legal term “fruit of the poisonous tree”, and if all of your evidence traces its way back to a source that isn’t really legitimate, well, you have to throw it all out.  I can’t totally fault them for it – the movie has to have a plot, after all – but it ends up being the weakest part, to me, because I couldn’t help thinking all is not true. Could it have been true? Sure.  They do a better job there than Shakespeare In Love which I don’t think was at all suggesting that’s what really happened. But I’ll give Branagh that – he tells a perfectly reasonable story. But the title of that story is not Could Be True.

One thing that did surprise me – this film is *gorgeous*. I don’t know who is responsible for making the colors on the screen do what they do, but damn they did a fine job. Some shots are near breathtaking. For a play about a man of words, somebody decided, “We’re going to make sure we show just how beautiful the world around him is.” At times it reminded me of the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come (also a Shakespeare line!) with its literally out-of-this-world colors. Given that much of the story takes place inside – lit by candles, thus making the scenes pretty dark – the cuts to outside shots are always a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.

In the end, and maybe this was deliberate, I don’t know, but in the end, this is an average story about an average man. You could tell the “man tries to reconcile with the family he ignored for twenty years” about anybody. In this case, it just so happens to be the world’s greatest author. It might even have been a better movie if they pulled back on the Shakespeare and let that story shine through. There are parts where it was good, but plenty where it was contrived.  There’s a scene where Judith screams, “Nothing is true!” just so we get our juxtaposition with the title of the movie for Heaven’s sake, but come on, who talks like that? What does that even mean? There’s the aforementioned garden. Lots of heavy-handedness like that. But I guess there’s an audience that likes that?

Go see it.  Go see it with someone you love, who doesn’t know as much about Shakespeare as you do :).  Spot the references, enjoy the colors.

 

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I Love Good Omens So Much

I was beyond excited when I learned that Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman was being turned into a tv series.  If you’re not familiar with the backstory, the two friends had basically agreed that there’d be no further work done on the property – no spinoffs, no merchandise, etc.. – unless they were in agreement.  Well, Terry Pratchett went and died (*). And that was the end of that hope.  Except for the part where he personally left a letter asking Neil Gaiman to make the movie version.  Well, now that’s just ineffable, that is.

Anyway, this post would be a mile long if I keep blathering.  The story tells of the friendship that is formed over thousands of years by the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (formerly “crawley”, as in snake…, played by David Tennant) because they’ve been stationed on Earth ever since Man was there, basically cancelling each other out so often that they get bored and stop wasting their time. I convince my kids to watch it with me, and they seem to like the first episode, so now it’s become family viewing time. One weekend night when everybody’s available we’ll all wind down and watch an episode, the whole family in the room, no electronics. Is very nice.  My wife and oldest are on the big couch, my middle on the love seat, and my son on the chair in what I’m only just realizing is very Goldilocks and the three bears of us.  I’m on the floor with pillows.  Just to set the scene.

Each episode of the series shows how the friendship between angel and demon evolved (while, in the bigger arc, they plot in modern day to stop the end of the world). They show up in the Garden of Eden, they show up for Noah… Each time the angel is there as a sort of witness, and David Tennant is there to look confused and ask some very interesting questions.  They actually show the crucifixion of Jesus in one episode, for example. Tennant’s demon asks, “What did he do?” and the angel responds, “Told people to be kind to one another.”

And then a title card pops up saying “1601 London” and I threw both hands up in the air and yelled excitedly, “They’re visiting Shakespeare! They’re visiting Shakespeare!!”

Cut to Aziraphale watching a rehearsal of Hamlet. It’s not very good. But the Shakespeare character keeps calling him Burbage, which is appreciated (though he’s too young and skinny for Burbage). Crowley shows up to watch for a little while and out of the clear blue drops some out of context Shakespeare (from another play that I won’t spoil) and I did an excited little dance there from my spot on the floor, arms up in celebration, because when I sat down to watch tv tonight I didn’t expect to get David Tennant doing Shakespeare.

I heard my oldest’s voice behind me say, “Yay, Daddy’s happy.”

Very much yes.

 

(*) He’s not gone, he’s just in the clacks.

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A New Authorship Theory Has Entered The Game!

This week there are stories about both Amelia Bassano and Delia Bacon making the rounds, so I’ve had to spend some time talking authorship with people in my life.

So when I saw this interesting new AI project called TalkToTransformer I had to have some fun with it. You’re supposed to give this thing a writing prompt, and then it will fill in the rest.  I prompted, “The works of William Shakespeare were actually written by…”  and here’s what I got!

The works of William Shakespeare were actually written by two men; one was English and the other was an American. The English writer William Wordsworth (1710 – 1696), and the American poet John Wilkes Booth (1711 – 1816) were both inspired by Shakespeare, though they were not connected in any way.

William Shakespeare, known as the ‘son of an ironmonger’, wrote much of a tale known as the Merry Wives of Windsor. The story describes a happy couple, a young boy and a young girl – although it’s not clear if the parents are named or the boy is named.

There were many variations of the poem, and it probably wasn’t the last of its kind – perhaps the first. The early versions have been used to create an image of the Victorian age, featuring scenes of women (especially English women) in their prime; and an older man (sometimes male) with a young woman.

The play was first staged during the playwright’s lifetime, in 1819.

Hey, makes about as much sense as every other authorship theory!  I like how it made Wordsworth a time traveler.  I think one of the Booth family would appreciate being credited as an author, too.  When authorship comes up I’m going to start pushing the Wordsworth/Booth theory, because why not?

 

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Trivial Pursuit for Shakespeare Geeks

I’ve oft-lamented that while I would love to collect and play Shakespeare board games and card games, I don’t really have anyone in the physical world to play with. My family will try to play, but the game ends up 90% me explaining things and letting them keep up.  Where’s the fun in that?

Well when Shakespeare Trivial Pursuit was announced a month before my birthday I knew I had to have it, even if to just add to my collection.

But! I think I’ve found a way to rewrite the game for when the number of Shakespeare geeks is drastically outweighed by non-Shakespeareans.

  • All of the Shakespeare Geeks are on one team.  Anyone not a self professed Shakespeare geek is playing for themselves.
  • The cards are shuffled and placed in the center.
  • The first non-SG player picks a card.  Player is allowed to look at all the questions, and the answers.  Player must then decide which question they think the SG team is most likely to get wrong, and ask SG team that question.
  • If SG team gets it right, they get the card.  If they do not, asking player gets the card.
  • First player or team to a pre-determined number of cards, wins.  SG team must get at least two times that number (since they get a chance to collect a card on every turn, whereas individual players do not).  Odds can be adjusted (3x, 4x..) depending on how many players, and how good SG team is.

Always read the question out loud, as well as the answer (in cases where SG team does not guess correctly). This has the added advantage of teaching the non-SG players something about the subject 🙂

If you play this way, let me know how it goes! Also let me know your ideas on what’s up with the extra wedge holder thingie, I still don’t understand that. 🙂

 

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We Will All Laugh At Endgame Spoilers

I was actually a little surprised today to see somebody send me an Endgame spoiler over on Reddit.  It was a randomly generated account so I’m guessing it was just blasted to everybody.  Reddit doesn’t really have an advanced inbox system so it’s not like I could have ignored it — I click the “new messages” button and bam, there it is.  Oh well.

Here’s the thing, though.  Why in the world would anybody who’s read Shakespeare care about spoiler?  Newsflash, jackasses – we already know the ending. It’s not about that.  If your entire investment in the story hangs on keeping something secret?  Then you didn’t do a very good job telling your story.

How many times have we all read and seen King Lear? Or Hamlet?  There are no twists in Shakespeare.  We always know that Cesario is a girl (although, that gives me an idea for a different blog post…. 😉 )  It’s about how they tell the story to get there.  Honestly, I think plenty of people knew the ending of Infinity War before they saw it – but they still saw it.  Same with Endgame. We already have our tickets. Nothing’s going to change.

So, my fellow Shakespeare Geeks, laugh off any cowardly spoilers you happen to stumble across.  If you’ve got any investment in the story at all – and after 10 years and 20 movies, who are we kidding, of course we do – then no little trolls should be able to spoil that for you.  Enjoy the show.

 

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