A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , ,


  1. Re: Bale, also consider Empire of the Sun.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | September 2, 2010 | Reply

    • Ooh! Great suggestion!

      Comment by tanatoes | September 2, 2010 | Reply

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