Thursday, May 9, 2013

Henry V (1989)

Perhaps a good reason the work of William Shakespeare remains celebrated today is its versatility, or at least it possesses enough ambiguity to allow different adapters to put their own spins on the material. Take Henry V for example. One reading of the text offers a celebration of war and nationalism, placing a glorious and patriotic spin on the King of England's conquest of France; this was certainly the case with Laurence Olivier's version, filmed during World War II when British morale needed a boost that would bring the country together during a dark, uncertain time .

Then there's this 1989 adaptation, the directorial debut of star Kenneth Branagh. While his King Henry is no less rousing, the contradictions of the play remain at the forefront. War here is not a noble adventure and duty but an exhausting, bloody, and filthy enterprise fought for murky reasons and uncertain reward. Branagh buries his camera in a sea of men and horse, and the effect is appropriately overwhelming, chaotic, and intense as blood and rain wash over the combatants.

Henry V follows Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. The irresponsible, roguish Prince Hal of England has become the mature, thoughtful King Henry V (Branagh). After being advised that he is the rightful ruler of France, Henry presses his claim against the French court, only for his demand to be scoffed at. In response, Henry leads his army overseas in a declaration of war to claim his right by force. His army captures the city of Harfleur, and Henry and his men advance toward Calais. All this builds to a titanic battle between a massive French army and Henry's starved, sickly band on the fields of Agincourt.

That's the bare-bones plot. Keep your eyes peeled for a number of familiar of faces in a number of subplots and side stories. Derek Jacobi plays a decidedly modern chorus who introduces the film and transitions us from one act to the next, Ian Holm is the grizzled Welsh captain Fluellen, Brian Blessed is Henry's uncle the Duke of Exeter, Robbie Coltrane (in the role he was born to play) is the boisterous John Falstaff (sadly limited to flashbacks from the previous plays), Judi Dench is Mistress Quickly, Paul Scofield is King Charles of France, Emma Thompson plays Princess Katherine, Christian Bale is a boy in the English army, and more. Most of the performances are quite good. Really good is Scofield as the king who suffers as his country bleeds, and so is Holm as the tough man-at-arms who gets one of the saddest moments of the play post-battle. Dench and Coltrane are really good in their brief parts, but their characters had more to do in the previous plays; their presence feels like extended cameos.

Of course, discussion of performances can't exclude Branagh himself (nominated for an Oscar as both actor and director). This is nobleman who can lead men into battle. His "Once more unto the breach" speech to his troops at Harfleur is delivered in front of a castle gate as explosions go off behind him and his horse rears; it's an unforgettable image that's matched by Branagh's fiery delivery that the audience is ready to charge off with him. Later, before the climactic battle at Agincourt, his "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" monologue is enough to swell the heart with patriotic fervor. Greatly helping is a bombastic, stirring score by Patrick Doyle, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Branagh's Henry gets the audience to believe in the justness of his cause even when events around him seem to undermine the nobility. The claim that Henry is owed France is pressed onto him by church officials who know a good war will distract the king from passing a law that financially impacts the church; Henry might believe his own cause, but those that goaded him have ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Henry's old drinking buddies - Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol - engage in thievery. Bardolph robs a church, and the others loot corpses. At Harfleur, Henry forces the town to surrender when he threatens to have his soldiers rape the women and massacre the children.

Unlike the previous posts in Shakespeare month, Henry V strikes a much better balance between being a cinematic experience that can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with Shakespeare and a traditional theater showcase for strong performances. It's not perfect. A few conversations will be hard to decipher for those not familiar with the text, and after the epic battle and a sweeping unbroken shot of Henry carrying a dead child across the war-torn field (which would have been a perfect place to end the film), the film continues for another twenty minutes after we've been exhausted by the fight and drags on with Henry's courtship of Princess Katherine (straight from the play but still pretty lame). But all in all, those looking to explore the Bard's work for the first time, this would be a great place to start.

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