Recovering English majors will find a lot to love with All Is True, a surprisingly fun and imaginative family drama chronicling the later days of William Shakespeare. Kenneth Branagh directs and plays the lead, which is as it should be—after a lifetime of transposing Shakespeare's work for modern audiences, Branagh has earned the right to finally portray the Bard himself.

The story opens as the Globe Theater burns down in 1613, essentially ending Shakespeare's professional life. Retiring to his home in Straford-Upon-Avon, the playwright finds simmering family drama. Several dramas, actually: His daughters are mired in small-town scandals and his wife Anne (Judi Dench … Dame Judi Dench) has been harboring nuclear-grade resentments.

The film thereafter contains numerous surprises. For one thing, it's funny. The dialogue, meanwhile, is crisp and clever; the jokes sly, which makes one realize what thin gruel we typically get in comedic writing these days. Also watch for innovative lighting techniques with candles, a puzzle cinematographers have been trying to crack for 100 years; someone apparently figured it out (see also The Favourite).

The family intrigue clicks up another notch when Ian McKellen (Sir Ian McKellen) appears, inevitably somehow, as a significant figure from Shakespeare's past. McKellen and Branagh share a scene of mischief and warmth as the two old rogues delight in reciting Shakespeare's most famous sonnet. The theater veterans are working on about 17 different levels in this scene and, for some, it's bound to be a thrill ride.

In fact, all of the dialogue is multivalent, carrying meaning along different vectors as the story unfolds. The script by Ben Elton (of The Young Ones fame!) is, in and of itself, a testament to dense Shakespearean storytelling, though the third act gets awfully speedy and finally spins itself to death as it jams in dubious mystery and progressive revisionism. There's even a ghost story in this thing. But by the end, we're pleasantly dizzy from the sustained charm offensive and All is True winds up a generous piece of work from a crack squad of British storytelling veterans.

 8
+ All-star British theater cast; lovely lighting
– Overstuffed plot; alarming Elizabethan haircuts

All is True
Directed by Branagh
With Branagh, McKellen and Dench
Center for Contemporary Arts, PG-13, 101 min.