Branagh’s Henry V, 1989

buy on Amazonby Debra Murphy

I had the privilege of seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, when it was first released in 1989, at the gorgeous old Oriental Cinema film palace in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That afternoon matinee has gone down in my memory as one of my primo movie and Shakespeare experiences. In fact it was a sort of revelation; so much so, that I think I can safely say that, had there been no Branagh’s Henry V, there would be no Bardolatry website today. Is there anyone who can doubt that much of the recent resurgence in interest in Shakespeare on film is owed to the success of this terrific film?

For me personally, the essence of the mental revolution kindled by Branagh’s Henry V was the realization that Shakespeare was, after all, a modern playwright. Sometimes even “postmodern”. Any artist who can so convincingly juxtapose, in one tale (in one character!) ruthlessness as well as charm, demonic brutality and angelic chivalry, populism and imperialism, has something to say to those of us born in the latter half of the twentieth century.

On top of it, it’s a whopping good story. And If that isn’t what Shakespeare’s all about, I don’t know what is.

Here follows a few of my appreciative “notes”, hardly a critique per se, of Kenneth Branagh’s dark but lively and altogether glorious film:

First, a word on the Chorus, the divine Derek Jacobi, who first made me (and Branagh, I understand) fall in love with Shakespeare with his stage Hamlet:  Sir Derek’s Chorus, in a black trench coat, introduces us to a postmodern “Wooden O” —  a movie soundstage where all we groundlings gather, as it were, to behold the “swelling scene.” What a terrific idea, and perfectly suited to the business at hand. From then on the intermittent juxtaposition of medieval and modern serves to illustrate how little has changed in the world from the time of King Henry. Whatever costumes we may wear, whatever our political or theatrical trappings, human nature has changed but little, if at all, and there’s the hum

Speaking of humor, Branagh as director takes advantage of every opportunity for a bit of levity in this sometimes brutal story.  One of my favorite moments in the film comes early, when the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Kay) attempts to persuade the king and his court that Henry should “unwind his bloody flag” and make a claim on the French crown. The Archbishop’s argument consists of one of those probably spurious and certainly tedious biblical sounding “begot by” speeches that stop so many of us from reading past the first few chapters of Genesis. Only a lawyer (and an anal one at that) could make sense of this mess, and Branagh turns the verbiage to good purpose by showing it for the nonsense it is. The good prelate concludes his peroration with the dry comment that it is therefore “as clear as the summer sun” that Henry has a claim on France. Yeah, right…whatever, your Lordship.

Another inspired choice on Branagh’s part was to snippet bits of Henry IV, parts I and II, and insert them into the film as strategic flashbacks intended to illustrate Prince Hal’s much-noted “wilder days”. This little trick enables the Bard neophyte, especially, to see just how far Henry has come in terms of maturity and dignity and kingly responsibility; also how much he may have lost, humanly speaking, when he turned his back on that incomparable rogue, Sir John Falstaff, played nimbly in this film by the comedian Robbie Coltrane. When Plump Jack subsequently dies of a broken heart, and the rest of Hal’s former buddies march off to fight and die for the king who refuses now to know them, one can’t help but ask, What price glory?

Another standout moment comes as the English, at Southampton, prepare to set sail for France. Henry has intercepted messages that  reveal that three of his closest friends (including Lord Scroop, his “bedfellow”) are about to betray him for French gold. Henry exposes the trio, then singles out Scroop for a tongue-lashing that showcases Branagh’s rich vowels and bristling consonants. What an enormous talent.

Another cinematic coup: acquiring master thespian Paul Scofield to play the depressive King of France, whose occasionally crippling  terror of young King Henry marks him out as perhaps the only completely sane men in the French court. I love the scene where Brian Blessed, armed in complete steel, strides forward as the Earl of Exeter to lay out Henry’s demands, as well as his contempt for “the Dolphin’s” snotty gift of (gasp) tennis balls. “He’ll make the Paris Louvre shake for it.” Ouch. The French king had good reason to be depressed.

Another little revelation…Emma Thompson as Katherine, the French princess. She barely speaks a word of English in this play, but was there any question in anyone’s mind, after her few luminous minutes on screen, that this woman was going to be a huge star?  I don’t think it is possible to do Kate’s learning-English-scene better than this.

Still, for my money the most critical scene in this film, the scene that separates it above all from Olivier’s more sanitized, even propagandistic version, filmed during the Second World War, is Branagh’s fearless portrayal of Henry-as-brute force during the siege of Harfleurs. Despairing at the lack of spirit of his own countrymen, even after his rousing “Once more into the breach, dear friends” speech, Henry takes to haranguing the besieged townsmen of Harfleurs in the most violent language possible. Just listen to it, and shudder:

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit;
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants…

There’s more, and it gets worse.

Is this chivalry? Is this the justice one expects of a Christian King? Whatever it is—aye, there’s the rub—it (at least according to Shakespeare) worked. Harfleurs surrendered, and there were no longer any doubts in anyone’s mind that Henry had long since ceased to be the sportive youth who liked to hang out with bandits and drabs at Cheapside taverns. Branagh portrays this young king in all his heat and fury, so that we, along with the befuddled French, can only look at him and wonder what the hell happened. For this I could kiss Branagh’s dirty shoe.

Then, finally, there’s the battle of Agincourt. Branagh’s reading of the Crispian’s Day speech is so lusty, so joyful, the audience the day I saw it—many of them, like me, old Vietnam-era counter-culture types—clapped and whistled. And, yes, I suppose Branagh stole the flight-of-arrows bit (and a glorious bit it is) from Olivier’s earlier version, but every war movie since, from Braveheart to Saving Private Ryan, has stolen a bit in turn from Branagh’s wild and muddy out-of-nowhere indie hit, and usually at fifty times the budget. (“By all means, steal,” say the experts, “but only from the best.”

This is that rarest of Shakespeare movies: fully realized as Shakespeare, and fully realized as a movie. I especially recommend it to parents and teachers looking for ways to introduce Shakespeare to young people.

Categories: Henry V and Kenneth Branagh.

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