Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 3

#11: Henry V (1989)

Henry V poster

Two weeks ago, I mocked Kenneth Branagh’s weak casting and directing, because I had to. I mean, Robert Sean Leonard.

Much Ado 5

By now, if you’re reading this, you’re obviously asking yourselves, how will this rogue rank Branagh’s Shakespeare films? Like this, from best to worst:

  1. Henry V (1989)
  2. Othello (1995, directed by Oliver Parker)
  3. As You Like It (2006)
  4. A Midwinter’s Tale (1995, a comedy about a beleaguered production of Hamlet)
  5. Twelfth Night (1988, in which Paul Kanfo directed an adaptation of a stage production originally directed by Branagh)
  6. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
  7. Hamlet (1996)
  8. Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

The top four are top notch, Numbers 5 and 6 are a mixture of good and bland, and the last 2 are only as good as the liquor you’ll be drinking while watching them. Your liver may not survive Love’s Labour’s Lost, actually. (Alicia Silverstone plays one of the leads.)

But lest you think me hopelessly blackened in heart, let me devote the rest of this review to Branagh’s finest film, Henry V.

For Americans, the history plays have often been under the radar, as the intricacies of British history before Shakespeare’s time can seem rather obscure, especially since these plays often had multiple parts whose connective narrative threads can seem elusive. For British theatre-folk, though, they are much more familiar, and for a young actor like Branagh, trained in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, who would play Henry V in the Royal Shakespeare Company, filming the play and portraying the part would seem like a normal enough of a maneuver.

When Laurence Olivier wanted to declare himself a film actor and director of Shakespeare in 1944, he did so with Henry V. (L.O.’s first film work of Shakespeare, As You Like It, did not yet convince him that Shakespeare could be meaningfully filmed.) Of course, the timing of Olivier’s Henry V was fortuitous for a British public eager to feel patriotic and keep its spirit up. Henry V is about a young king who, after several dissolute years as a prince, strives to be an ideal monarch for his people, and fights for the rights of England without compromise.

Henry V Olivier

Arguably, for Branagh to adapt Henry V for the screen is more problematic, for patriotism outside of a Nazi subtext asks a lot of its viewers. Henry will appeal to his priests (who privately, corruptly think mostly of their own statuses) and then throughout the play to God.

There is also the matter of the chorus, who will provide the audience with exposition at the start of every act. He opens the play with an apology that the stage cannot present the epic spectacle of the narrative:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

This warning is meant for the sparse stage space of Shakespeare’s day, not the scenery that a modern movie is capable of showing. Often enough, in this film, the scenery will seem to lack nothing concocted by a Muse of fire.

This meta-theatrical hemming and hawing, however, comes off as charming, as we see the peerless Derek Jacobi prepare us for the film while stalking about a film set before thrusting open a large door to a black room.

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Henry V had a limited budget, so some of the scenes were done sparsely. Frankly, there is a humility to the production that is so intimate and lets us focus on the exquisite actors.

And the acting in Henry V is perfection. Branagh begins the film as a calm, quiet king asking for counsel from his cabinet and from his clergy.

Henry V 1

While the ambassador from France conveys an insult to him and his kingdom, Branagh manages one of the finest examples of modulation in any acting performance ever, as he moves from his calm to powerful, meticulous rage.

In his adaptation, Branagh shows Henry’s dissolute ado (borrowing from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2), and also shows how the king treats his own psychological make up as a tool, and how he draws out the psychology of those around him, including known traitors, and the various attitudes of the common soldiers fighting for him, and for England. Branagh shows Henry to be a trickster in fooling those around him, but a trickster with a heart so large that it will do anything to be a good man, and a good king, which at times will cost him his own humanity.

The cast is superb. Gigantic, sonorous, beautiful Brian Blessed plays Exeter, the king’s uncle; you may remember him as Prince Vultan (leader of the Hawkmen) from Flash Gordon. The intense Ian Holm is Captain Fluellen. Paul Scofield plays the woebegone king of France. Robbie Coltrane, who the world knows as Hagrid, plays Sir John Falstaff in some flashbacks. Judi Dench plays the inn keeper Mistress Quickly. Emma Thompson mines as much humor as is possible from the part of Princess Katherine of France. (Shakespeare really thought French accents were simply hysterical, for some reason. It gets worse in Merry Wives of Windsor.) If you squint, there’s a fifteen year-old Christian Bale playing Robin, an iconic boy for the commoners and the soldiers. Every actor in the film seems to know what to do, seems comfortable with rendering Shakespeare into the real.

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And this Henry V is earthy. The battle scenes show the ugliness of war, and the exhaustion and confusion and the nauseating amounts of mud and blood that result from thousands of men swinging blades at one another’s heads for hours.

Of course, this is the play that has the “St. Crispen’s Day” speech in which Henry rallies his tired, weary soldiers who will be facing a massively larger, well-rested French army.

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Here Patrick Doyle’s score rallies in melodic triumph, which seems appropriate; in later films, he seems to launch such pomp for the mere sake of Branagh seemingly never saying no under any circumstances.

Branagh does try to give his audience reasons why the French would fail at Agincourt: the French show ample hubris (that is in the text) and the English employ archers while the French do not. But what is remarkable to me about this Henry V is that Branagh seems as humble and earnest as Henry is. He gets me to cheer for England’s success, despite the fact that, unlike most Shakespeare junkies, I am not an anglophile whose heart tingles at the sight of the Union Jack, nor am I capable of believing that God will direct the fate of a nation’s military initiatives. But I am capable of believing that Henry believes that God will guide his hand, which is a remarkable thing.

The setting and the performances are all straightforwardly superior. Branagh followed in Olivier’s footsteps, and outdid him with his first Shakespeare film.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.