A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 185 – Henry V (1989)

Henry V (1989) – September 1st, 2010

When I was in high school I took a year long Shakespeare class as my English for my senior year. We read our way through a large chunk of the Riverside Shakespeare Anthology. Once in college I signed up for a course that advertised itself as a study of the Shakespearean plays no one reads in classes. As the Reduced Shakespeare Company says, “the bad plays”. By the time I hit that course I’d read about eighteen plays, either in my senior year of high school or in other classes along the way. I’d read a lot of it out loud in English classes, drama classes, public speaking classes. I left that course having read several more plays (and shocking my professor, who thought I’d been exaggerating how much I’d read already until he saw my Riverside and notes), including all three parts of Henry VI. Henry V? Was one of the first plays I ever read. It’s kind of faded in my memory and I’d never seen Branagh’s version until tonight. Odd, huh?

There’s something about Branagh’s vision and performance of Shakespeare that translates it so well, it floors me. It’s almost as if one could listen to his tone and watch his expressions and know exactly what’s going on. Looking back, I touched on how I think Shakespeare should be performed when we reviewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream but I think it bears repeating. Good Shakespeare shouldn’t, in my opinion, expect the audience to glean the meaning of a scene from the lines, but from the way they’re said. The performance and context should convey the message. There are simply some actors who have a gift for Shakespeare. Judi Dench is another who can do that. She’s amazing. Also, Emma Thompson, who speaks mostly French in this. Now, I took Spanish in high school and college, and I know about ten words of French, but I understood the gist of what she was saying because she performs it so damn well.

This movie is like a showcase of some of my favorite UK acting talent. Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Christian Bale. Yes, Christian Bale. Playing a character named Robin, which I snickered at given his turn as Batman. I also spotted Robert Stephens, who plays the villain in one of my favorite movies ever, simply by his delivery. It’s wonderful seeing so many excellent actors perform such an impressive piece as this. Of course the star is Branagh as Henry, but as is common in Shakespeare’s plays, there are plenty of scenes he’s not in. There are scenes with secondary characters talking together and scenes with minor characters. There are scenes with the King of France and his men and scenes with Katherine and her maid. Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Robin and Nell all have several scenes as a group. Judi Dench as Nell gets a nice little speech about Falstaff. It’s good to see so much talent on screen.

Now, for the subject of the play, well. It’s one of the histories. And it’s a history being written from a British point of view for a British audience. So of course we’re to see the winner of the battle, King Henry V, as a hero. He’s written to be a likable and charismatic leader. The famous St. Crispin’s Day speech is certainly a rousing piece of writing and Branagh delivers it amazingly well. I teared up, I admit. But ultimately this is a play about an invasion. It’s about Henry invading France and claiming it. The battles and their aftermath are definitely a large hunk of this movie and they’re shown to be muddy, blood-spattered, confusing and dismal. You see soldiers lose their footing on the soggy ground, men tripping over the bodies of their comrades, single soldiers ganged up on by groups of five or more. The foley department did a gruesomely excellent job with that last, by the way. The shortly described scene of the boys with the baggage carts being found all dead is played out on screen here. Body after too-young body is shown, ending with poor Robin. While we’re clearly supposed to back Henry and his bid for France, the means by which he achieves his goal are obviously painful. I wish I had time to read the play through right now so I’d be able to talk about just what specifically was stated outright in it, but as far as the movie goes, war is hell.

The frustrating part for me for this play, and this movie, is that after this big battle and all the heroic speeches and the long tracking shot of Henry walking through the battlefield with Robin over his shoulder, there’s this wooing stuff with Katherine. The whole thing until then has been politics and strategy and treason and battles and honor and the like. And then suddenly Henry’s telling Kate he loves her and wants to kiss her. I get the marriage thing to tie the countries together, but the scene itself seems like it’s out of a different play entirely. It’s performed well, certainly. Branagh and Thompson do a great job with it, understanding and misunderstanding each other. It just seems ill-suited to a play about politics to introduce a dab of playful romance. It’s in the play. I looked it all up. In fact, there’s a lot more in the play than in the movie. They cut out a lot. But still, it’s not like this was inserted to give Branagh and Thompson an excuse to play on screen together (they got married a few months before this was released). I’m questioning Shakespeare more than Branagh here, but Branagh did the adaptation and left it all in, so I’ll question him too.

Overall, I’m really glad I finally sat down and watched this. As I said, Branagh does Shakespeare well, and I do applaud his version of this play. It puts on screen the fears and hopes of people going into battle, and never flinches from the knowledge that some of them will die. It leads in with politics and machinations. It shows a king rallying his men to a battle that might have seemed impossible and infusing them with patriotism and determination. It’s an excellently performed, excellently adapted, excellently staged and filmed version of a play I wish I knew better.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Henry V (1989)

September 1, 2010

Henry V

I’ll admit that I don’t much like the subject material of this play. It’s a story of war-mongering and invasion, with the hero of the play being the invading king. I’m not a fan of bloodletting and war, and I don’t believe that nations are worth killing for, much less monarchs. That’s my United Statsian upbringing showing itself there. Furthermore it is my understanding that the victory at Agincourt was primarily one of superior technology (i.e. the English longbows) which allowed the English to slaughter the French at range before the battle was truly met. But then again, this is Shakespeare at his most bombastic, and Kenneth Branagh at his most brilliant both as an actor and as a director.

How to attempt to encompass this work in a simple review? Branagh treats Shakespeare here with reverence and manages with an economy of vision to create moments which are greater in their impact than in their portrayal. Take, for example, the climactic battle at Agincourt. Rather than film a budget-breaking epic battle with tens of thousands of extras Branagh fills the screen with intimate moments and up close fighting. We never get any sense of the battlefield itself, it’s just a mad chaos of struggling bodies and mud. In point of fact the actual filming must have looked like a ren-fest mock battle with actors slamming their swords against shields repeatedly, but the way that it is choreographed gives you the impression of a grand battle.

Really, this is a reflection of the very presentation of the entire play. From beginning to end we are led through the actions of the armies of Harry king of England by the humble narration of the Chorus (played brilliantly by Derek Jacoby) who tells us up front that what we are to see are only a pale imitation of the grand events that we must employ our imaginations to bring to life. Which is not just an excuse for a lesser production. It’s a great stylistic choice both by the Bard and by Branagh. What they are saying here is that the events being portrayed for us here are so grand, so epic and so beyond anything that could ever be encompassed by a stage or screen, that only in our mind’s eye can justice be done to them. It lends a mythic quality to these adventures.

There’s a lot going on here in this film, and because the play takes place in the middle of Shakespeare’s lengthy War of the Roses saga there are characters that Branagh has to introduce who carry over from previous plays. In particular he’s forced to insert flashbacks to make sense of all Falstaff’s friends and followers. If you’ve seen Henry IV then there’s some impact to Falstaff’s death at the start of Henry V, but Branagh doesn’t have the luxury of assuming that his audience will know about the adventures of young Prince Hal. So there are the flashbacks, which transform the foreshadowing of the earlier plays into something a little more blunt in this production. At times there’s a rather harsh disconnect between the lives of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph and the greater affairs of state which now demand King Henry’s attention.

But all of that is a small and insubstantial complaint in the face of all the things done so spectacularly well. Henry V is a play full of strong speeches and rousing moments, and those parts are captured flawlessly. The “Once more into the breach” speech captures Harry the hardened battle commander. There is much maundering about morality in war and purpose. There’s the famous bit where Henry goes down among the common men on the eve of battle. And of course there’s the “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech, which ranks amongst the most rousing call to battle ever written and has been often and poorly imitated. Branagh delivers that piece with such passion, such absolute heartfelt abandon, that you cannot help but be swept up in it. I desperately want to lay my hands now on the Lawrence Olivier version so I can compare them.

As with Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing there is a jaw-droppingly complex and well executed lengthy tracking shot near the end of the movie that simply takes my breath away. We may not get to see the epic battle at Agincourt but we get to see its horrific aftermath well enough. It’s one of the rare moments where Branagh presents the action on a larger scale than could be encompassed by a stage or a television production and allows the audience to see what we’ve up until then only been picturing in our minds.

I realize that I haven’t really talked about the performances or the cast. Suffice to say that both are spectacular. I could go down a laundry list of familiar faces and all their accomplishments, but what would be the point? Amanda and I were both amused to see a very young Christian Bale, for example, especially so soon after watching his Batman movies. There’s Ian Holm transforming himself once again to play the phlegmatic Captain Fluellen. Of course there’s the always fantastic Brian Blessed (who Amanda noted was instantly identifiable even from behind because of his distinct carriage and stage presence.) There’s Robbie Coltrane and Richard Briers and Judi Dench (who is so completely transformed that I had to check the credits to be sure it was actually her… amazing performance.)

And who could forget the way Henry woos Katherine at the end of the play, just as apparently Kenneth wooed Emma Thompson. Ah, they made such a great couple together. Here and again in Much Ado. I must remember to pick up a copy of Dead Again one of these days too.

We picked this movie tonight because it’s one of the longer ones we own and because we had time for a longer film. But even with its disjointed feeling plot and grand epic scale I’m tempted to start it over again and dive once more into the breach right now. Because it is such a great film, and so full of wonderful moments, and because I so enjoy the way it leaves me feeling when I’m done watching it. I feel enriched, uplifted, and awed. It’s a grand piece of writing and a grand piece of film-making.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments