THE GREAT ADVENTURE OF A KING WHO DEFIED THE ODDS TO PROVE HIMSELF A MAN.
When I was a teenager, maybe this was around 1990, my class was treated to a performance of Shakespeare’s ”Hamlet”. It was not a bad production; the young leading actors went on to have successful careers. But we were an ungrateful bunch. I did behave, this was after all a rare opportunity for me to see a play, but other kids kept talking and making noise, until one of the actors broke character and told them to shut up. Shakespeare was just too boring for them, I guess. But in 1989, Kenneth Branagh shook the dust off the Bard.
Approached by two bishops
Sometime in the early 1400s, Henry V (Branagh) is King of England. Just as he’s considering a decree that would confiscate property from the church, he’s approached by the Archbishop of Canterbury and another bishop. They point out that Henry should be king of France; after all, his lineage is proof enough. Henry is talked into going to war; suddenly there’s no talk of confiscating church property anymore. King Henry’s threats are conveyed to the King of France, Charles VI (Paul Scofield), and the Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who defy Henry. The Dauphin is eager to face the young king, but Charles, wise from previous experiences of fighting the English, is not as confident.
After dealing with traitors amongst his midst, Henry attacks the city of Harfleur in Normandy…
Finding a way around Olivier
One would be forgiven for thinking that the ultimate version of Shakespeare’s play had already been made. In 1944, Henry V was a triumph for Laurence Olivier that won him a special Oscar for his achievement. Branagh found a way though. First of all, he had the background of doing the play on stage for years before making his feature directing debut. Branagh had a little fun with the text; there are several interesting changes, most notably flashbacks where he used dialogue from the Bard’s ”Henry IV” (both parts).
Secondly, Branagh has delivered a version of the play that is considerably darker and dirtier than Olivier’s, emphasizing the mindless violence of the battlefield. The aim is clear – Branagh wants to bring his audience closer to the action and make it seem more relevant to modern eyes and ears. He was tremendously successful, earning raves for this film and making several more Shakespeare adaptations that won admirers. Another nifty detail that grounds Henry V in a modern era is the choice of having the Chorus (Derek Jacobi) speak to us from the present; in this version, he is a man dressed in modern clothes who introduces himself on a movie set, surrounded by lights and props. He keeps popping up here and there throughout the story, lending context and commentary.
Branagh’s direction is magnificent and swift throughout; his cinematographer, Kenneth MacMillan, surrounds the king with all the expected pomp, but also takes us close to his doubts in solitude, and all the carnage of war. It’s an enthusiastic lead performance, assisted by terrific British talents, including a very young Christian Bale as Robin the luggage boy.
Branagh brought Patrick Doyle along for this project; then working at the same theater as a musical director, Doyle wrote his first movie score and it remains one of his very best, a stirring soundtrack album. The most memorable scene comes in the shape of a speech, perhaps unsurprisingly since it’s the speech that gave us the term ”band of brothers”. It sees King Henry motivating his soldiers to fight for him, and when he’s done we’re all ready to grab our swords. Which is a strange effect when you think back to the beginning of the story and how pointless this war seems…
Henry V 1989-Britain. 137 min. Color. Produced by Bruce Sharman. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Play: William Shakespeare. Cinematography: Kenneth MacMillan. Music: Patrick Doyle. Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton. Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Derek Jacobi (Chorus), Brian Blessed (Duke of Exeter), Alec McCowen, Ian Holm, Richard Briers… Robert Stephens, Robbie Coltrane, Christian Bale, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, Emma Thompson.
Trivia: Ian McKellen was allegedly considered for a role.
Oscar: Best Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Direction. European Film Awards: Best Actor (Branagh).
Last word: “Even though we had this fabulous cast, the film was made on a shoestring. After a few weeks, we heard that the movie was in trouble because one of the backers had withdrawn. Then a Yorkshire paint manufacturer came to see us with a view to investing. He didn’t know Paul, Ken or Judi from Adam, but when he spotted me, he said, ‘It’s Fancy Smith from Z Cars! What do you think, Brian? Should I put money in this?’ I told him Ken was a genius and he stumped up the money there and then – and all in cash, from two suitcases stowed away in his car. ” (Blessed, The Telegraph)