Henry V (1989): United Kingdom – directed by Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some battle violence
It would be interesting to compare Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V with Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books [review here], another take on Shakespeare that turned out far differently. While both use the Bard’s original text for dialogue, Greenaway’s version is a piece of celluloid turned into art, with a variety of unconventional editing and aesthetic techniques that give it a life of its own. Meanwhile, Henry V is a perfect example of a standard adaptation, lushly staged with a focus on acting, the play’s original words, and little else.
Not that there’s anything wrong with using Shakespeare’s words verbatim; indeed, it would be almost sacrilegious to alter or modernize them. With Branagh’s direction, Henry V feels the epitome of a British filmed play, albeit with enough cinematic flourishes to make it theatrically feasible.
The film is told by Chorus (Derek Jacobi), who floats in and out at the end of scenes almost like bookmarks, providing narration and motives for some of the story’s characters. Much of the story concerns the rise and near-fall of the reign of Henry V (Branagh), a young king eager to regain his inherited claim in France.
With the advice of some of his counsel, Henry begins a long distance conversation with France that some might consider overly confrontational. His intentions are good; he just wants to peacefully master what is rightfully his. Unfortunately, Louis the Dauphin (Michael Maloney), the French king’s son, is arrogant and hawkish, eager to provoke England to war. The king, Charles VI (Paul Scofield), is aged and wise, and wishes anything but violent conflict.
But conflict makes a dramatic tale, and after a series of insults Henry decides to take France by force. He leads a campaign into the continent and takes a number of villages. Eventually his way is blocked by the Dauphin’s army and those of the other French royals. In a last ditch effort to avoid total annihilation Henry rallies his troops (with the famous “Band of Brothers” speech) and reverses the fortunes of the English.
During his entire campaign Henry is a gentle but firm king, ordering his soldiers to behave honorably as they pass through towns. He even commands the execution of a man accused of stealing from a church, a man who was his friend before his ascension to king. But this pains him greatly, just one of the examples of the hardship of being the king. Henry’s internal struggles are an important theme in Henry V as he tries to do the right thing, remain king, and maintain order in his ranks. He even goes so far as to dress shyly one night and quiz his soldiers on their thoughts of the king. His intentions are not to ferret out potential mutineers, but rather to gauge his effectiveness as leader and the morale of his troops.
Henry, played by Branagh with a calm, measured intensity, is the epitome of a good king. It is only with the passage of several centuries that it seems his warring campaign is arrogant, wreaking of manifest destiny. This is just one of the signs that the people of today are so far removed from the medieval warfare depicted in Henry V. The battle scenes, while less graphic or rousing than in many later films, are dirty and grueling, with frequent cuts to the ground. Mud mixed with blood splashes on all the participants and the horses, creating a miserable, filthy arena of violence. The idea of fighting honorably in such a situation also seems a bit archaic, but this is precisely what Henry and his troops do. It is the French who flout the conventions of war, going so far as to slay the supply train boys.
One of the most interesting characters is the messenger Montjoy (Christopher Ravenscroft), a Frenchman who initially does not look favorably on the English. Repeated trips to bring Henry messages, and the opportunity to see some of his deeds in person, eventually lead to Montjoy realizing that Henry is an admirable person. There are a number of supporting characters, played by esteemed British actors such as Christian Bale, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, and Ian Holm. Each of them appears dirty and nearly unrecognizable, except Thompson as the French king’s daughter. A brief wooing scene between her and Henry seems so out of place that I had to consult my Complete Works of Shakespeare to ensure it was in the original play.
Henry V’s faults are few. As a straightforward adaptation it is nicely staged, professionally acted, and compelling. For some it might be a bit dry, as it is difficult at times to understand the plot through the Shakespearean English (I probably only picked up on half of everything outside the main story). While not as unconventional or visually provocative as Prospero’s Books, Henry V is a solid, entertaining, and enlightening dramatic Shakespearean adaptation.