In the history of cinema, there have been two magnificent versions of Shakespeare's greatest play, this and Olivier's. While Olivier's version is pretty good, for my money this is the best.
This really is a magnificent film. At its heart is the grand vision of Shakespeare, and his beautiful language. But Branagh has done something special in bringing it to the screen. He's used a range of modern Shakespeareans, almost every role is filled by a famous face. By using such a multitude of skilled actors, every line of Shakespeare's text is delivered professionally and in a way calculated to evoke the greatest response in the audience. The text is delivered fluently, yet accessible and understandable to the modern audience - no mean feat! Derek Jacobi makes a captivating narrator, Robert Stephens is a suitably rascally Pistol, Richard Briers is a revelation as Bardolph. Branagh himself excels in the central role, managing to portray the two sides of Henry's character, the martial and the roisterer, very well. I could go on, but there are so many good performances from famous names it would take all day.
Then there is the cinematography - never has the battle of Agincourt been brought to such visceral life on celluloid. Whereas Olivier when for grandeur with the silvers clad knights charging across the field, Branagh goes for gritty realism, that leaves you feeling quite exhausted by the time it's all over.
Branagh has taken a few liberties with text, by including a few scenes featuring Falstaff from Henry IV pt 2, but these are necessary to explain the two sides of Hal's character (and sets up one of the most moving scenes, where Mistress Quickly (Judy Dench) describes the death of the great Knight). There are also a few cuts and rearrangements, but these serve to keep the narrative flowing and make the film a bit more accessible. The text has been treated with much respect though, and the majesty of Shakespeare's language shines through. My favourite scene is one which Olivier cut - the unveiling of the traitors. I still get a shiver when I hear Branagh utter the line `Look then and know - I know your worth...' Classic.
The score is especially worthy of note. Patrick Doyle manages to evoke the period with a score that is by turns ominous and martial, punctuating the text perfectly. It's a match for Walton's score for Olivier's version.
The version being reviewed is the 2002 disc from Universal. This is a pretty basic release, in 16:9 widescreen and a stereo soundtrack. There are no subtitles or extras. The sound and picture are pretty clean and watchable, but I can't help feel that it's time (it's the 20th anniversary of the film this year) for a proper remastering and a special edition release.
This is a classic film, one that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys good cinema. It's done in a very accessible fashion, so not just for Shakespeare experts, this should appeal to all, and, like it did with me, will probably help get people interested in the Bard. Buy it, you won't be disappointed.