In the last series of Upstart Crow, Will proclaimed:
‘It’s spooky how many plays I’ve written called Henry! Six so far. I’ve sort of Invented a Franchise…The Henry Universe!’.
That’s very much true of Upstart Crow itself, because, unarguably Ben Elton and Kenneth Branagh’s serious biopic about Shakespeare’s final years – All Is True, undoubtedly feels part of the expanded Upstart Crow Universe.
The story follows an older Will, who has decided to retire after his beloved Globe Theatre burnt to the ground – a real historical event. Poignantly, at the beginning of the film, we are reminded that after the fire Shakespeare never wrote another play! There’s a great cinematic shot of Will’s dramatic silhouette against a wall of fire that is particularly powerful.
Will finds that when he returns home to Stratford his family aren’t welcoming, his wife (Judi Dench) and two daughters seem distant and he is continually haunted by the ghost of his dead son, Hamnet.
This is where Upstart Crow fits in with the narrative. As we all know, the finale of series 3 packed a real punch when Shakespeare came home to the news that his son had died – Shakespeare had tragically missed Hamnet’s passing as he was too caught up in the world of celebrity, neglecting his family.
This story is the focus here, where Kenneth Branagh’s melancholy Will realises he hasn’t mourned his son at all, and sets out to make a garden in Hamnet’s memory.
Will struggles to make peace with his family and his own feelings, including his affections for ‘the fair youth’, played superbly by Ian McKellen. The scene in which Anne reminds Will of the poems he had written for the Earl of Southampton will be very familiar to Upstart Crow fans… when back in the first series Liza’s Anne berates David Mitchell’s Will about them!
This film isn’t a comedy though – apart from a few light-hearted scenes and one speech towards the end of the film to Sir Thomas Lucy (that I could actually visualise David performing) it’s a very serious theatrical and almost play-like film. You can truly feel how much the cast and crew love Shakespeare, and that comes out in the performances.
At the Upstart Crow recordings, Ben Elton would always give a bit of a talk about Shakespeare, briefly detailing his life…whilst all they way through the show he would offer snippets of information.
In one of the last scenes of the film, Shakespeare has a chat with Ben Johnson, and I could actually hear Ben Elton’s voice explaining the fates of Will’s contemporaries such as Greene, Kit and Kid.
But is ‘All’ really true? Well, just like Upstart Crow, it roots itself in truth and packs itself with all that we know of the Shakespeare’s family. So, most is actually true – but the film also adds a narrative element of mystery of which we can only speculate on. It also inserts Shakespeare’s text into the dialogue. There are quite a few fantastic readings of sonnets (between Branagh and McKellen) and an amazing speech from Titus Andronicus in one of my favourite scenes of the film.
However, the best scene in my opinion, is where Will discusses a gift of a pen knife that he bought for his son. It’s an incredible and beautifully acted scene that would surely have even the most hard-hearted person weeping in the aisles.
What’s truly remarkable is that almost certainly this film would not exist without Upstart Crow-and that is a huge testament to ‘Upstart Crow’ and the studio audience sitcom. Long may Upstart Crow and the expanded Upstart Crow Universe continue!