on 28 July 2000
Branagh's Henry V is very conscious of Olivier before him in the heroic mould. This time the budget does not permit a full scale cavalry charge and armies thousands strong at Harfleur and Agincourt. But then, Shakespeare himself had to represent these battles with fewer resources even than Branagh. In Branagh's case (as in Shakespeare's) the answer was to focus on the inidviduals. He conveys the visceral fear of battle against a superior enemy very well. We are touched by Mistress Quickly's farewell to Falstaff, and Nym/Bardolph/Pistol/Boy's farewell to the Boar's Head to which none will return unchanged. Branagh's production never forgets the gritty reality of personal grief, fear and tragedy (viz the hanging of poor old Bardolph), but still allows us the jingoistic buzz of the Agincourt scorecard 10,000 French to 29 English. Branagh's Henry V is on a much smaller canvas than Olivier's, but Shakespeare's was smaller still. Good job.
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.
on 17 August 2005
I adore this film. The acting is outstanding, particularly that of Kenneth Brannagh. The way Brannagh has adapted Shakespeare is a little bit risky, particularly when he imports a bit of another play (Henry IV) to explain how the king has "broken the heart" of Sir John Falstaff - but some explanation had to be made. He also cuts out some other stuff that a 20th century audience might not find very appealing in this King whom Shakespeare wants to practically canonise: like the king's order for all French prisoners' throats to be cut at Agincourt (act IV scene 7). I think the alterations are acceptable. He leaves out one bit of gruesome dialogue I'd rather he had left in, when Henry makes a little speech to the French herald to emphasize the fact that he will not be ransomed and the only profit they'll get out of him are his "joints" (act IV scene 3). He goes on to say that any English corpses left on the field will kill twice over because "the sun shall greet them", they'll rot and choke the air, "killing in replapse of mortality". Neat!
Shakespeare's king is an ambivalent figure, and Brannagh brings this out well, although not in quite the same way as does Shakespeare. I particularly like the scene after the battle, when Henry carries a dead boy off the field, through the scene of carnage where the muddy puddles are red with blood, passing a group of three French princes, one dead, kneeling in a way that refers to a pieta.
Shakespeare/Brannagh's Henry seeks war, but sees it as his duty. The reasons he has for seeing war as his duty relate to a particular kind of naked patriotism that does not appeal to me, but that does not detract from the attractiveness of the character: it gives a sense of "otherness", of time having moved on: and actually you get the feeling that Henry himself has "moved on" by the end of the film. There's a sensitive portrayal of human behaviour in the face of death. And on the eve of Agincourt, Henry has an ethical discussion with some of his soldiers: if soldiers kill on the orders of the king while doubting the justice of his cause, do they stand exempt from blame?
Oh, I do like this film!
For a first effort at feature-film direction, now-veteran director/writer/actor Kenneth Branagh provided an astonishing introduction to his many talents in filmmaking with his 1989 production, 'Henry V'. There is a gritty realism brought to the screen in this production that combines in dynamic and interesting ways with the Shakespearean dialogue and situations. The battle scenes are some of the best in cinema for depicting the kind of royal and knightly battles. A special commendation goes to cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan, art directors Martin Childs, Norman Dorme, John King, and costume designer Phyllis Dalton for combining elements of stage and screen together to complement the story perfectly without overpowering it. Indeed, the picture won the Oscar for Best Costumes; Branagh was nominated for Best Leading Actor and Best Director. The film and crew were nominated for and won many other awards as well.
One of the problems of Shakespeare on the silver screen is that the situations, settings, and acting often ends up somewhat contrived. That rarely happens here, because of this remarkable team.
The principle writing credit of course goes to William Shakespeare, but as is always the case, the play is recast to make the film medium more natural for the story. Kenneth Branagh is the one credited here, and has shown himself several times after this film as a master of adapting Shakespeare faithfully to the screen.
The play itself is one of Shakespeare's history plays -- remember the broad three categories of Shakespeare: history, drama (some say tragedy), and comedy. Like most of the history plays, there is creative license taken with the actual history, as it is invariably adapted to make the present regime look good, credible and more legitimate. This explains why Richard III in Shakespeare is far more villainous than in actual life; in Henry V, the country had a great and (for the period) uncontroversial hero - the last king of England to be acknowledged the dominant power in Britain and in France, succeeding in unwinnable situations, and, as befits a good historical hero, dies young before he has the chance to destroy his image. The play has always been popular in times of national crisis - see Olivier's production of Henry V during World War II depicting the king as a national saviour against continental foes.
The action of the play and film turns on the legitimacy of Henry's rule in France (an issue still for Elizabethan audiences, as Elizabeth was crowned with supposed rights to France). The French are depicted as haughty and disdainful of the young king (interesting how some things don't change), and the battle lines are drawn. The film here sets the stage for a far more ambiguous justification for war than is often depicted in the play, leaving the viewer wondering if, for all the glory of the battles, was there a real point, or was it legalistic/diplomatic trickery?
There is also the interesting scene with the conspirators against the king, unmasked as the forces are about to depart for France. Cambridge, Scrope and Grey are exposed, but the dialogue and acting hints as a more intimate relationship with Henry V - possibly this references obliquely the rumours of homosexuality, or at least bisexuality, in the historical Henry.
The players are excellent here, from Branagh himself as Henry V, and Brian Blessed his strong right arm Exeter. Paul Scofield (Thomas More in 'A Man for All Seasons') plays the ancient French king, Charles VI, and his son the Dauphin is played by Michael Maloney. This is, on the whole, a rather 'young' film, as Branagh himself was not yet 30 at the time of production, and most of his aides and friends in the play are similarly young, save for a few senior advisors. Emma Thompson, a staple in Branagh's films, plays the only significant female role, the princess Katherine, to whom Henry will be wed. Her part is almost entirely in French. Her maid, Alice, is played by Geraldine McEwan (perhaps best known from 'Mapp & Lucia').
The famous speeches here are preserved; Branagh does a fantastic job with his spirit-raising monologue for the troops prior to the battle of Agincourt, on Crispin Crispian day. The speech on horseback in the early seige of Harfleur, 'once more into the breech!' is also remarkable. The lines delivered by all the actors are done with care and precision - Exeter's report to Henry at the opening ('tennis balls', said with great sneer) and to the French party ('scorn', said with so much scorn the word need not be spoken) are but a few examples of this.
The film expands upon the play's use of Falstaff's companions as a comic relief, by incorporating what would be flash-back scenes from events in the Henry IV play cycle, premonitions of events currently in the play. Robbie Coltrane turns in a good performance as Falstaff; look for Judi Dench in a minor role as the Mistress, and a very young Christian Bale as the boy.
The music for the film is triumphant, foreboding and dark. This is a wonderful score produced by Patrick Doyle, known for work on other Branagh films such as 'Dead Again' and 'Much Ado about Nothing', as well as other films such as 'Indochine' and literature-based films like 'Gosford Park' and 'Great Expectations'.
Derek Jacobi, veteran Shakespearean, portrays 'Chorus', the narrator of the action, one who casts the right spirit from beginning to end, and appears throughout. There are few Shakespearean asides done by the actors here (a few under-the-breath comments that might qualify), but Jacobi's role is always directly to camera, directly to us as the spectators. The ending portrayed by Chorus is both victorious and tragic, much as the cycle of history must be.
This is a glorious film.
on 1 January 2008
Branagh's first screen version of a play by Shakespeare is still, in my opinion his best. It has often gained adverse criticism as being too like the RSC production in which he had recently starred and a pale imitation of Olivier's film. Neither comment is really fair though I wish Branagh had not followed Olivier's lead and been bold enough to include Henry's command during a tricky moment during the battle of Agincourt to "kill all the prisoners." Branagh does, however, grapple with the play's implied and most important question: is Henry V a good king or merely a successful one? The film can also be seen as a dialogue with the forties version. Whereas Olivier's interpretation of the night before Agincourt, has visual echoes of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene, when Branagh's Henry puts on Erpinham's cloak, he looks rather like the Grim Reaper. There is also an homage to the extended shot of the French knights galloping towards the English lines in glorious sunshine. In Branagh's version the end of the battle shows the exhausted soldiers walking off the field amid mud and carnage, looking absolutlely drained of energy; is it significant that Olivier's long shot is filmed from left to right and Branagh's is the other way round? Branagh also emphasises the psychological cost of war, no more so than when Henry orders the execution of Bardolp, an old drinking companion, his crime being that of looting from a church. Branagh should also be given credit for filming Shakespeare at a time when it was deeply unfashionable; no popular version of any of his plays had been made for about fifteen years. After it the floodgates opened and all through the nineties at least two films based on the bard were released every year. None was more challenging than this one.
on 31 March 2003
Kenneth Branagh makes an astounding directorial debut in this acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hank Cinq." For his efforts in this 1989 film, Branagh was nominated for Oscars as both Best Director and Best Actor. The rest of the cast is comprised of the finest contemporary stage actors in England: Derek Jacobi (Narrator), Brian Blessed (Exeter), Alec McCowen (Ely), Ian Holm (Fluellen), Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly), Paul Scofield (French King) and Emmas Thompson (Katharine). Robby Coltrane even makes a brief appearance as Falstaff. This is clearly the anti-war version of "Henry V," where the stirring oratory of the St. Crispin's Day speech is washed away by the memorable tracking shot as Henry carries the body of one of the dead English boys across the bloody field of Agincourt to the sound of the "Te Deum." Even at 138 minutes much of the play is omitted in this film, including much of the comic interplay between the four soldiers (who have English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents), but that is to be expected. Branagh filmed all of "Hamlet," and that did not exactly go over well.
Whenever I would teach Shakespeare I would devote a class period to showing my students the Prologue and first two scenes from the Olivier and Branagh versions of "Henry V." The purpose was not only to show them what a performance of the play would have been liked when staged in the Globe Theater (how Olivier opens his film), but to show the range of dramatic interpretation of the film. Olivier's Henry is full of flowery eloquence, while Branagh offers a quiet intensity instead. Just compare the difference in the entrance of Henry in each film. Of course, if you look at both films in their entirety you cannot help but realize that Olivier's version was made during the Second World War, when England was again facing a powerful enemy, while Branagh's version is just as clearly a post-Vietnam film, where war is a bloody business and heroism a matter of simply surviving. Obviously my suggestion for a double feature is going to be both versions of "Henry V."
on 9 January 2003
This is a wonderful film, in which Kenneth Branagh's passion for his art is very obvious. It's a trifle "over the top", but personally I like that.
King Henry V has spent his youth making whopee, but grows up in a hurry when he feels he has to pursue a claim on the French throne created by his ancestor, the Black Prince, at Crecy. He is underestimated by the French king (an out-of-touch old man played exquisitely by Paul Scofield), and by an effete dophin. Henry accordingly sets out for France, and we see him at Harfleur, where he delivers his "Once more into the breech" speech, and on to Agincourt, where we hear another famous speech: "... we few, we happy few, we band of brothers ...".
Branagh has adapted Shakespeare's script for film. Some of the changes are obviously desirable. He drops the dialogues that take place while the battle is actually raging because he doesn't need these devices - he can show pictorial images instead. Other omissions are a bit more controversial, as at the end of the battle where Fleuellen finds the boys in the camp have had their throats cut and Henry says "I was not angry since I came to France till now." Shakespeare's text tells us that the king's tent was ransacked too, and that as result of these two breeches of the laws of arms Henry tells his soldiers to cut the throats of their prisoners. That little act is the only one in the play that makes me shudder. But then I'm reading it with modern eyes. Branagh has made his adaptation for just such modern eyes, and it could be argued that he is wrong to do so.
One piece of text that I'm sorry not to find in the film happens when Harry receives a messenger from the French asking the king to fix a sum for his own ransom - he's outnumbered, and is sure to be taken prisoner. Henry says the French will get nothing but his "joints", or bones; he will die with his men. Shakespeare has a lovely, earthy bit of rhetoric here, when Harry describes what will happen to him and all the English who die with him: they'll either be taken home, buried under brass memorials that will show their deeds of bravery (thus inspiring others), or their bodies will lie in the field where they fell, the sun will shine on them, they will rot and raise a "pestilence" in France. English soldiers kill twice over! What a pity Branagh left out that earthy speech. Perhaps he thought a modern audience too squeamish.
Another interesting little feature is that, just before the battle, the knights kiss the ground or smell the earth. Clearly Henry was a fan of Russell Crowe.
Both Shakespeare and Branagh clearly admire Henry V, and their picture of him is very warm. Branagh's Henry weeps while he watches an old drinking companion hanged for robbing a church. Henry is genuinely pious, but you catch the desperation in his prayer before the battle, when he begs God "not today, oh, not today" [remember how his father came to power by murdering Richard II]. It would be more grammatical to say - don't remember this today. To reverse the phrase makes it wonderfully real.
The use of film rather than the stage makes it possible to create some lovely moments. Just before the last march to Agincourt, Henry says of his exhausted little army: "We are in God's hands now" - and the rain immediately comes down in buckets! Then we see the changes in the French messenger, Montjoy, who, in his repeated embassies to Henry, gains an increasing respect for him. The last bit of dialogue they have takes place when the battle has just finished. Montjoy, who has come to ask leave for the French to retrieve their dead, puts a hand out to help Henry when the latter collapses in exhaustion.
This is a gorgeous film. I can't stop watching it.
on 9 February 2016
One of the great Shakespeare plays, starring an excellent Northern Irish actor. I read this book for my 'O' Level and it has it all, a great story, violent action and an English centred view of history.
on 1 November 2010
The problem with most `Shakespeare movies' is pretty simple, they were written for the theatre and it is difficult to make them work on the screen. This problem never seems to occur here; there is a sense of cinematic scale that just makes it work. Each scene flows seamlessly into the next so that the abridgements - and the additions taken from Henry the Fourth - seem utterly natural.
The primary `bad' is the packaging; the DVD cover looks cheap and dated. This does not do the film any justice at all. For a film made just over twenty years ago, it is remarkable how little it has dated. The battle scenes are a highlight for me, though this is where the age (lack of CG) and budget (not Hollywood scale) might disappoint some.
The overall concern I had when approaching this film was that with Kenneth Branagh as writer, director, and star, this film might prove something of an ego trip. In this I was pleasantly surprised, the title role by no means eclipses the others; in fact; the strong performances from a host of other actors is the main virtue of the production.
I would recommend this as a classic with a distinctly contemporary feel. Five stars.
on 4 March 2016
It was very brave of Kenneth Branagh to tackle Henry V when the memory of the 1945 Oliver version was still so strong in most people's minds. Yet his version is both earthier than Olivier's...and yes, better...