Henry V (1989)

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Henry Hotspur, King of England, must leave behind the alliances of his bawdier days when a war against France becomes an inevitability, the situation little helped by the arrogance of the French royal family. Harry’s men are (by and large) loyal and motivated, but as a decisive battle at Agincourt looms it appears they are hopelessly outnumbered, in need of a miracle to carry the day.

Between Baz Luhrmann’s highly-charged Romeo + Juliet and tweaked-for-teens efforts such as 10 Things I Hate about You and Get Over It, a ‘straight’ Shakespearean adaptation is nowadays something of a rare beast. However, acclaimed British thespian Ken Branagh has kept the flag flying with versions of (amongst others) Much Ado about Nothing, a comprehensive (ie. 4 hour!) Hamlet and, first of all, Henry V. Branagh’s efforts to keep Shakespeare alive in film are laudable, but do the films – or rather, does this film – achieve much beyond immortalising the director’s own performance and helping out hard-pressed students of English?

The answer, in my view, is a solid ‘yes.’ Beginning with a fabulously overwrought piece of music over blood-red titles (both remind me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except without the llamas/moose), the film throws us (via Derek Jacobi’s wandering chorus) into the king’s war chamber, where Henry (Branagh) is counselled that he has a legitimate claim over the throne of France. Although the idea of war hangs heavily on the young king’s shoulders, a derisory, ‘pleasant’ gift of tennis balls from the French dauphin determines his resolve to assert the claim. Meanwhile, Henry’s old carousing partner Sir John Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane) lies dying in Mistress Quickly’s ale house, Nell (Judi Dench) and the squabbling trio of Pistol, Bardolph and Nym (Robert Stephens, Richard Briers and Geoffrey Hutchings) lamenting the man’s passing and the fact that Henry has cut him off completely since assuming the throne. This scene not only shows the lowly position of the people who will go off and fight in the king’s name (including Christian Bale as a boy); it also uses flashbacks intelligently to contrast Harry’s raw youth (as portrayed in Henry IV) with the status required of a king.

Branagh’s performance is, of course, central to the success of the film, and he is excellent, proving contemplative and quietly-spoken but with a clinical, steely edge when he needs to act. In this he is helped by Shakespeare’s words and also by a magnificent supporting cast: Brian Blessed provides the muscle as Exeter, foiling the conspiracy of Cambridge, Scroop and Grey and delivering Henry’s acid reply back to the ‘dolphin.’ And when Henry’s small army land in France and lay siege to Harfleur, Ian Holm does a great job as the educated but long-winded Welshman Fluellen. Stephens is brilliant as Pistol and Briers poignant as the wretched Bardolph, appealing for the king’s mercy and finding none.

The obvious point of contrast for Branagh’s performance is with Laurence Olivier’s in his Henry V of 1944, but the films are obviously made in different ages and show up changes in technology as much as style and emphasis. Whereas Olivier’s Harry was a wartime rabble-rouser for the whole of Britain, Branagh’s king is much more intimate, appealing to his men almost individually as he gives the ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speeches – Ken knows how to build a speech to its climax and does so brilliantly, also knowing when to rage internally and let the camera do the work.

Quite apart from his acting, Branagh shows a talent for directing, the close-ups effectively guiding the viewer’s eye and the sets coming across as realistic, lit as if only by candles and daylight. It is only in the climactic Battle of Agincourt that this realism fails to convince on film, the fighting appearing muddy, static and confused: this approach may well accurately reflect what the field of battle looked like in 1415, but it lacks the energy that (for example) Kurosawa brought to his battles in the King Lear-inspired Ran.

The enemy are also portrayed in fine fashion. Michael Maloney is supremely contemptuous as the dauphin, much to the dismay of his father, the weary king (Paul Scofield); and it is little wonder that those Frenchmen who meet with Harry find him the more noble character. Emma Thompson plays Katherine, the king’s daughter and ultimately Henry’s prize, tutored in broken English by Alice (Geraldine McEwan). I have never found the scenes with Katherine, presumably designed as light relief, particularly satisfying, and Henry’s clumsy wooing of Katherine after he has enforced her father’s surrender seems out of character with the rest of the play, though it has amusing moments. Branagh can hardly be blamed for this, however, and Thompson and McEwan make the best of their screen time.

Likewise, the miraculous disparity in the death tolls between the French and English – no doubt a piece of ingratiating propaganda on Shakespeare’s part – seems ridiculous to a modern audience, but Branagh wisely plays up the arrogance of the French and makes it clear whose side God would take, especially after the dastardly slaughter of the English boys.

To come back to the original question, it could undoubtedly be said that those studying Shakespeare’s play will get most out of Branagh’s Henry V: but this is also true of any novel, or even any comic book, adaptation. What is important is that the characters and their four hundred year-old words are brought to life with a skill that makes them compelling to all but the most committed of Bard-haters. Remarkable for any director: but for a first-timer, something very special.

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