Thursday, May 9, 2013
Henry V (1989)
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.
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.
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.