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 | , , ,

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