Daily Archives: August 3, 2021

Henry V (1989)


*. In my notes on Olivier’s Henry V I noted David Thomson’s comment about how there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with, and that for that reason he remains “helplessly loyal to Olivier.” I said there that I thought this was probably true, but that for me Kenneth Branagh’s film would always have such a place. I’d only add here that this Henry V also holds a special record in my personal movie-going history, being the only film I went to see, upon its release, three times. I was an English student at the time and it just seemed like the best thing ever to me.
*. I still rate it very, very highly. I think it’s the best of all of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and that he really never did anything near as good. Seeing as he wasn’t even thirty here, there’s something a little sad about that.


*. As remarkable an achievement as this film was for Branagh — and it marked his directing debut — I’d say he has to share accolades with composer Patrick Doyle, whose first film score this was. This is, in my opinion, one of the four or five very best scores ever written, especially if you consider it in total and how well it works with the rest of the film. It’s not overstated, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it is because it feels large. How on earth it escaped even being nominated for any major awards is a complete mystery to me. Who picks these things? But, as with Branagh, I’m not sure Doyle ever did anything else as good (though his overture for Much Ado About Nothing is a masterpiece).
*. I take it that the long dolly shot over the battlefield with the Non Nobis arrangement playing is meant to recall the electric dolly shot that covered the cavalry charge in Olivier’s film. A nice pairing that.
*. It’s usually described as being a more realistic take on Shakespeare, and the first thing that’s meant by this is mud. Not the single wet spot on the sunny emerald Technicolor green of Olivier’s illuminated battlefield but rather a Passchendaele-like mud bowl that the combatants wallow in.


*. More than the mud, however, the film’s realism resides in its language. You may never hear Shakespeare delivered as naturalistically as it is here, and at such speed and with such obvious relish. You can almost feel Branagh’s delight in rolling the words around in his mouth. And this works because Henry, being a king, is a performer. He knows it, and everyone around him, all the way down to the boy, knows it. When he’s bellowing at the walls of Harfleur or rallying the troops before Agincourt it’s understood that it’s all just a show. But playing the part of a king well was a king’s job, back in the day when it was a job.


*. Branagh also amplifies the language in two ways. The quiet scenes are played in close-ups, which exaggerate small gestures (a nod, a roll of the eyes, tears), while the louder, more confrontational parts are emphasized by frequent cuts to the speaker’s audience. It’s the same principle as the laugh track, where seeing or hearing the response to the speaker’s words on screen helps direct or amplify our own response. This is something Branagh does throughout, both when dealing with groups of people (the English soldiers Henry rallies) or in one-on-one verbal assaults (the poor herald Montjoy has to keep looking humbled after being dressed down again and again).


*. The Eastcheap gang were played pretty much as buffoons by Olivier, and here they’re far more sympathetically drawn. The thing is, as a group they’d been in decline throughout this trilogy of plays, and now with Falstaff dead there’s a real air of morbidity hanging over them all. With even Nell and the Boy dying in the end, Pistol isn’t just diminished but returning to a diminished world. He’s finally been written out of History.
*. Derek Jacobi’s Chorus works quite well, in modern dress, perhaps because we’re likely to recognize him as one of those talking-head presenters, David Starkey maybe, in some History channel docudrama. Remarkably, it never takes us out of the play.


*. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly political interpretation — unlike Olivier’s, which was very much a film of its historical moment. Though, as befits the more realistic presentation, the war is presented as something engineered through the operation of power politics, with the scheming bishops in league with Brian Blessed’s Exeter, a character whose bluff and hearty exterior belies a shady, manipulative warmonger. Dramatically, these opening scenes are surprisingly fresh and edgy, and have only taken on a greater resonance in a time that now has some more recent experience in the selling and marketing of imperialist wars.


*. I think all of this makes the film very Shakespearean, meaning full of ambiguities and complexities. Olivier never wanted us to mistake that we were watching a play, but a play that was expanding to encompass a wider stage. Branagh’s film wants us to see the world as a stage, which it is when dealing with such a subject as this anyway.
*. As with any really successful film, the stars were in alignment. Branagh and Doyle both making electric debuts, a supporting cast including a number of veteran stalwarts (I particularly like Paul Scofield), a full chemistry set with Branagh wooing Emma Thompson, and just perfect execution in nearly every production department. You don’t even notice that the battle scenes seem to all be taking place in the same little mud hole, the action is kept so fluid and crowded. There’s nothing like the cavalry charge from Olivier’s film, but has a Shakespearean battle ever been as expertly constructed as this? I can only think of what Welles did in Chimes at Midnight, and nobody’s ever topped that.
*. That Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s best and most film-friendly plays also helps. But I guess I have to fall back on what Thomson said as for why this may be my favourite Shakespeare film. I might not have been born with it, but I was born for it. In nearly thirty years I don’t feel any diminishment in its hold on me and I’ll likely remain helplessly loyal.