“Henry V” Movie Review

Time for me to tackle the granddaddy of all modern literature and storytelling: William Shakespeare. But where to go? The overly stylized dreg of Baz Luhrmann or the dated drama of Lawrence Olivier? My favorite comes somewhere in between. This British historical medieval drama was originally released in the U.K. on October 6th, 1989, coming stateside a little later. The film managed to just barely make back its $9 million budget, supported by some of the best reviews from that year. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who had built a reputation in British theatre, the adaptation had been something of a passion project for him. Despite him having no previous experience with cinema, producer Bruce Sharman and the BBC agreed to back it for at least £3 million to start. In addition to the titular play, he also included elements from both parts of its predecessor Henry IV. Based on the stage play of the same name by William Shakespeare, Branagh stars as Henry V, the newly appointed King of England. Set in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry and his court are in bloody conflict with the French royalty for the sovereign throne of both England and France. With a rough but loyal army that’s a mere fraction of their enemy’s forces, the King sets off on a campaign through the Fench countryside in an effort to defy all the odds and show his worth. Here’s a confession for everybody: I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, always have been. So whenever a filmmaker wants to adapt one of his plays into a movie, I get a little excited but also cautious. Not all of his works have made for great movies, and the upcoming Ophelia, a version of Hamlet from the perspective of the main female character, looks like it’s trying too hard. And it’s pretty clear that some of Lawrence Olivier’s films from the 1940’s and 1950’s have not aged well. That being said, I’ve always had an affinity for Kenneth Branagh’s attempts at the source material, this being the first of 5 adaptations from the enigmatic playwright. And Henry V isn’t just my favorite of his, but quite possibly my favorite Shakespeare play of all time. What I love about it isn’t just the amazing dialogue that should come to be expected of this man’s work. It’s the simple, effective idea that Branagh understands both this story and the titular character so well, you’d swear Shakespeare’s ghost reached out and whispered to him. In any other director’s hands, we’d probably have gotten a film that lionizes Henry whilst ignoring the carnage and conquest left in his wake. And although it does portray him in a mostly positive light, we also see the internal struggle for respect among his peers and the immense weight this war carries on his shoulders. He has to be careful not to give privilege to men he once was friends with. One great moment sees the King sneakily investigating the state of his soldiers and contemplating all of the burdens he must carry. Sure, he had to fight for his right to the throne, but he also has to prove himself as just a man, and that’s the most human thing anyone can do. Kenneth Branagh has had a lot of interesting roles over his career, but he came swinging out of the gate with his Oscar-nominated lead performance here. With a powerful voice that carries across fields, he delivers an innumerable amount of monologues and dialogue exchanges with complete control. And he doesn’t mess around; when the French court sends a herald demanding surrender, he proclaims, “I pray thee take my former answer back. Bid them achieve me than sell my bones!” Another standout would be his ex-wife Emma Thompson as Katherine, the French King’s daughter. The scenes in which she attempts to learn English provide a nice bit of comedy to ease the tension, in true Shakespeare fashion. He also collects a great ensemble to assist him, many of whom have a background in Shakspearean theatre. These include Dame Judi Dench as a distressed common innkeeper, a young Christian Bale as a luggage boy in battle, Sir Drek Jacobi as the narrating Chorus, Ian Holm as a moralistic Welsh officer in Henry’s army, Brian Blessed as the King’s rousing and loyal uncle, and Paul Scofield as the weary King of France. Meanwhile, Branagh also proves to be incredibly skilled and distinctive behind the camera as in front. With the help of cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan, we are able to see the full scale of the King’s European campaign. Many scenes are done on static long takes, especially one near the end of the film that really captures the powerful consequences of conquest. We can see the gritty style of the film come through in the hazy mud and faces soaked with blood. Michael Bradsell’s editing is smart, knowing exactly when to cut and where to give pause. However, one of the biggest stars of the film has to be Phyllis Dalton, whose costume design deservedly won her an Academy Award. Like her work on Lawrence of Arabia, it’s range is wide, it’s period-accurate and detailed to a fault. Combined with the wonderful production design, it really does feel like we’ve arrived in Medieval Europe. In the first of their many fruitful collaborations, Patrick Doyle composes and the epic musical score for Henry V. The first Shakespeare film to recorded using Dolby Audio, the score is performed by the City of Birmingham  Symphony Orchestra. The vast majority of tracks consist of strings, often moving between being intense for conflict, melancholic for more sobering moments, or rousing for ones of hope. There are also a number of woodwind pipes that infect certain moments, undercutting the serious tone for something far more subdued. There’s also a beautiful rendition of the Latin song Non nobis sung at the end of the Battle of Agincourt, hands down one of the best medieval battle sequences put to film. It is sung by Doyle himself and gradually evolves into a massive choir while a 4-minute tracking shot highlights the aftermath of the carnage. It still kind of amazes me that Kenneth Branagh was able to make this movie despite having zero prior expertise or experience. Most filmmakers may wait after a few projects to tackle a medieval epic, let alone one from the mind of William Shakespeare. But he went right in and, much like Henry himself, proved his worth to everyone around him. The BBC more or less blindly trusted his vision, and that trust has paid off. Henry V is a captivating literary tale of loyalty, victory, and conquest. It still boggles me that Branagh only 5 Shakespeare adaptations, and then went on to do other things. A part of me really wishes he could return to it while his career is still going, get back to his roots. Until that happens, I’m perfectly content with watching this film again, a completely underrated masterpiece.

Image result for henry v 1989

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