HENRY V (1989)

  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Writers: Kenneth Branagh, based on the stage play by William Shakespeare
  • Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Emma Thompson, Alec McCowen, Judi Dench, Christian Bale, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Briers, Geoffrey Hutchings, Robert Stephens, Michael Maloney, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton, Geraldine McEwan, and Christopher Ravenscroft
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Costumes), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Kenneth Branagh, Best Actor – Kenneth Branagh)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla or Kanopy (library apps), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app or Pluto TV

The new movie from actor/director Sir Kenneth Branagh, Belfast, is now in theaters. Shot in black and white, it draws heavily from Branagh’s own childhood in telling the story of a family deciding whether to leave Northern Ireland to escape the Troubles. Branagh was in fact born in Belfast, and moved with his family to England at the age of nine because of the Troubles. In addition to his acting career, he has directed a wide variety of movies, mixing “highbrow” fare with movies like the superhero film Thor, the action thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and a live-action adaptation of Cinderella for Disney. But he is probably best known for his five (to date) Shakespeare adaptations, the first four of which he also starred in. The first of these, and Branagh’s first film as a director, was Henry V, which on its release in 1989 received universal acclaim and might be seen as heralding a new generation of movie Shakespeare.

The young Branagh’s central performance as the titular medieval English king plays as sort of a boy pretending to be a man, which is basically what the character is, so it works. The basic plot of the story (heavily abridged in this movie) involves Henry’s forces getting involved in war with French King Charles VI (Paul Scofield) and his jerk son, the Dauphin (Michael Maloney). Backed into a corner against a much larger force, the story climaxes at the Battle of Agincourt, where Henry gives one of the more famous speeches in Shakespeare and the inspired English troops prevail. The French King sues for peace, Henry marries a beautiful French princess (Branagh’s then-wife Emma Thompson, in her first movie appearance), and all is well.

This all sounds well and good, but the great insight of Shakespeare in his better history plays is that, while the audience shows up for the big stories of triumphant kings, the real point of history is the “little people” swept up in events. Many adaptations of his work, including Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie of the same play, sort of miss this, or think of the portions of the play with the various fictional soldiers in Henry’s army as nothing more than broad comic relief. Instead, Branagh keeps all of this in, and takes it for the most part seriously, while leaving out as much of the wordy politicking of Henry’s court as he can. This version even adds “flashbacks” lifted from the two parts of Henry IV, showing Henry’s relationship to Falstaff, played here by Robbie Coltrane (best known today as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, in which Branagh and Thompson also played prominent roles). Falstaff never actually appears onstage in Henry V (his death is discussed), but Branagh’s version of the story understands that Henry’s relationship to the “common soldiers” is the main emotional hook of this whole thing, so he gives us a couple of Falstaff scenes to help us along.

This is the big disadvantage of the history plays on stage as opposed to on-screen, in that many things take place off-stage. Nobody was trying to recreate battles on the stage of the Globe. Olivier’s version portrays Agincourt as a sunny, glorious field (made during World War II, it was intended as a patriotic British rallying cry). But Branagh portrays Agincourt as it apparently really was, a wet, rainy sea of mud and gore. The end of the battle is not a triumph, but an elegy. None of Falstaff’s band survive through the end of the battle, even the stable boy (played by a kid who it may take you to a few scenes to realize is a very, very young Christian Bale). Before the battle even starts, Bardolph (Richard Briers) is hanged for looting a church. War as a glorious struggle, this is not. When I say that it plays as the start of a new era of on-screen Shakespeare, this is what I mean. This is, for all intents and purposes, realism told in the Shakespearean dialect. This has been the milieu of most adaptations since, with the possible exception of those that transplant the action to another time and place (such as the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet).

Not being able to show the battles on stage, Shakespeare added a “Chorus” (a single speaker), who apologized for the limited scope of the play and basically invited the audience to use their imagination, as well as explaining various historical events outside the scope of the play. This movie casts Derek Jacobi as the Chorus, walking through scenes like the Battle of Agincourt in modern dress and commenting on the action. The opening scene of the movie is Jacobi walking around backstage on a film set, before he opens a set of large wooden doors and the play begins. The inimitable Jacobi is one of a bunch of British actors cast in roles of varying size that many members of the audience will likely recognize. Ian Holm shows up as the Welsh soldier Fluellen, Geraldine McEwan (who went on to play Miss Marple in a long series of made-for-TV movies) plays the maid of Emma Thompson’s character, and none other than Judi Dench appears as the innkeeper, Mistress Quickly.

Also appearing in the movie is Brian Blessed, who plays Henry’s uncle and confidante, the Duke of York. This is our first encounter, somehow, with Blessed’s work on this site, and if you are unfamiliar with him, well, I’m sorry. A couple highlights: “In 1963, Blessed, then in his late twenties, assisted a mother giving birth in London’s Richmond Park. He delivered the healthy baby girl, then bit through the umbilical cord.” “He is the oldest man to have reached the North Magnetic Pole on foot, where he says he punched a polar bear on the nose.” “He has reached the tops of Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and has undertaken an expedition into the jungles of Venezuela, during which he survived a plane crash.”

Anyway, I am always up for a good Shakespeare movie, and while the Henry plays are not as popular Much Ado About Nothing or Hamlet (Branagh’s next two adaptations), they have been the subject of at least two lavish productions since. In 2012, the BBC’s Hollow Crown TV adaptation featured Tom Hiddleston as Henry and John Hurt as the Chorus, while the 2019 film The King (combining all the Henry plays into one 140 minute mishmash) starred Timothée Chalamet in the title role, Joel Edgerton as Falstaff, and Robert Pattinson as the petulant Dauphin. All of these are worth checking out in their own right, but Branagh’s version has likely remained the definitive one ever since.

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