Lauded playwright William Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre burns down after a stage prop cannon used in the première of his Henry VIII ignites a consuming blaze. Will returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon where at last, freed from the yoke of creative life, he comes to terms with the death of his son Hamnet, whose passing he never truly mourned, and devotes himself to the cultivation of a memorial garden, while also dealing with the nuisance of a public who cannot understand why he has now ceased to write. Meanwhile his daughter Susanna struggles in a loveless marriage to a puritan reformist, his other daughter Judith grows old (for a woman of that time) and has yet to marry, and Anne Hathaway can only view her husband, who has spent so much of their married life away from her in his London, as a guest in his own house.
Ben Elton, a writer about whom much could be said, for he can be as brilliant as he oft is shit, wrote the script, and it is somewhat infuriating that he can write an absolute showstopper of a scene one moment then stagger his pen about the page like a weepy drunk. We are treated to a marvellous firelit tête-à-tête in which Kenneth Branagh’s Will Shakespeare and Ian McKellen’s Earl of Southampton reckon with each other’s view of the world and all that’s in it, the former’s tireless work-oriented life pitted against the libertinous excesses of the latter, capped off with two opposed recitations (which of course must be credited to Shakespeare and to the actors themselves, not Elton) of the same sonnet that sets them so brilliantly apart. Yet the scene in which Judith decides that she will after all marry, the dialogue between the not exactly star-cross’d lovers is as uninspired as it is barely perfunctory. Ultimately, Elton’s script is too much in love with Shakespeare, both the dramatist and the man himself, to give all that much to the others, and on that point it is worth noting that the Earl of Southampton appears in only one scene.
The film is passably directed by Branagh, who, though he has no masterpieces under his belt as a filmmaker, does know a good shot when he sees it. Unfortunately, many images that should have great impact are near enough ruined by the most aggressively sentimental, and worse still generic score I have heard in a very long time. What’s more, a cardinal sin in my view, the soundtrack to a film set in the early 1600s features a fucking piano. Anachronism’s all good and well in a film that partakes, but this one does not, and a composer should have the courage and decency to do the same. Failing that, recordings of Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons would suit far better the English countryside than this lamentable hackwork, or perhaps even Morley, who set Shakespeare’s verse contemporaneously. I repeat that the film is infuriating on some level, because it does so well in some parts and so poorly in others, its presentation sometimes soaring, sometimes weighed down under a soggy script and even soggier partiture, but Branagh’s central performance is compelling enough to just about get it to work. A terribly uneven film, but one that I can’t deny finding overall enjoyable.