On this last review of my ‘Thirteen Days of Epics’ series, I felt compelled to shed some light on a film that is already a fusion of history with fiction with Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. While it isn’t as big or expensive as the previous films I’ve reviewed, this is certainly one of the strong ones, ranging from rousing and uplifting to harrowing and melancholic. For a film that’s nearly thirty years old it’s relatively old fashioned approach feels all the more appropriate for the material and the setting. And it happens to be St Crispin’s Day, so all the better!
The film is framed through the narrator or Chorus (Derek Jacobi), a modern day speaker who introduces the film and provides narration for each new act, whilst integrated into the medieval surrounding.
England, 1415: to prevent King Henry V from passing a decree that might confiscate property from the church, the Bishop of Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury convene to talk the king into invading France, claiming him to be the rightful heir to the throne. Their cause is supported by the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), and Henry agrees to press his claim to the French crown and threatens with war if he is denied. Montjoy (Christopher Ravenscroft), a representative of the Dauphin, delivers the Dauphin’s response: a chest of tennis balls. After Montjoy is dismissed by the calm but insulted king, Henry starts to plan his campaign.
All of the cast, being of thespian background, lend themselves to Shakespeare’s style and convey the emotion and intent through the archaic dialogue. Branagh absolutely holds this film together with his performance as Henry, as all things a king should be while still having his subtle foibles. Above all he is very believable as a king, and to me his Saint Crispin’s Day speech trounces the famous “once more unto the breach” scene and Branagh’s passion really shines through.
Blessed’s larger than life presence is kept somewhat restrained in this film, but even in his subtlest of speeches he leaves a tremendous impression, but he does have plenty of moments to let loose and be the actor we know and love him as. Judi Dench’s brief but very dynamic memorable turn as inkeeper Mistress Quickly, her eulogy for Fallstaff is beautifully acted and very emotional. Ravenscroft plays Montjoy as an earnest and respectful figure, even in the face of Henry’s ire and scorn from the English nobles. Emma Thompson is very charming, gleeful and radiant as Princess Catherine, flawlessly nailing the French accent, and the scene between her and Henry has genuine tenderness between them. Paul Scofield makes King Charles VI out to be a tragic and sympathetic figure, and portrays the king’s pain and careworn bearing beautifully. Geraldine McEwan is also quite likable as Princess Catherine’s handmaiden, also affecting a thick and dainty French accent. Ian Holm is terrific as the testy but affable Welsh soldier Fluellen, having a particularly wonderful scene with Branagh’s Henry. Coming off of Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale does a good job as the humble luggage boy and stands out among the other great thespians in this film. Jacobi’s incredible voice and stage presence allows the narration of the Chorus to leap off the screen and fire you up every time. Richard Briers, Geoffrey Hutchings and Robin Stephens as Bardolph, Nym and Pistol all perform their parts well as heavily flawed, desperate and cantankerous soldiers in the English army. Daniel Web’s officer, Gower, stands out in particular among the other soldiers. Robbie Coltrane as John Falstaff shows a lot of subtle emotion and great screen presence, and leaves a good impression.
The film is filled with stark lighting and atmosphere, making the most out of some relatively simple sets. The visual style of Branagh’s film is grittier and more realistic than that of Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation, with the depiction of Agincourt as a rain-drenched, muddy field strewn with bodies, resembling the trenches of Europe in the First World War. This sense of desperation and vulnerability among both English and French armies keeps the film from appearing too one-sided, while it is by its nature a very pro-England story. This muddy plain also adds to the reason why the French knights in all their heavy armour were beaten by the English longbowmen, because they are depicted as weighed down, impeded and blinded by the inclement conditions.
While the costumes are very well designed, worn and gritty and retain a degree of authenticity to the period, but the chainmail does look hopelessly artificial. Brian Blessed is the only actor who didn’t need to wear a light armour costume for the filming of this scene, he wore a whole suit of genuine heavy plate armour and chainmail. The makeup for the soldiers covered in blood, sweat and mud looks exactly as one would expect from a battle of this nature. The battle is shot to a grounded and gritty standard, highlighting its horror and brutality without resorting to gratuitous gore and dismemberment for its own sake. No doubt Ridley Scott would make a more visually arresting battle, but the Branagh is not compelled to dedicate more time to it than necessary. While there aren’t that many extras seen on these sets or locations, the weight and grandness of the events is still maintained throughout, and the focus on a smaller number of soldiers allows for a greater level of intimacy and attachment to the characters.
The score by then-newcomer Patrick Doyle is ranging from rousing and triumphant to atmospheric and suspenseful to emotional and sweet. The theme for the St. Crispin’s Day speech is inspiring and beautiful, having a classical quality to it akin to John Williams; the way it continues to rise as the speech proceeds is still beautiful.
Henry V has been discussed and analysed by academics and critics from a variety of fields in play and film form. It has been heralded traditionally as a rallying call for England, and that is still conveyed in this film but with a bit more visual nuance to it. Henry walks the fine line between being a protagonist the audience can be invested in and another power hungry king. While Branagh is the main reason this iteration of Henry works, you see him struggle to maintain his army. When disguised as a soldier named “LeRoy”, keeping his face half obscured in darkness indicates the somewhat underhanded nature of this tactic. By contrast, the innocence of Catherine is accentuated by the cinematography. Her scenes have an almost dreamlike quality to them, as though she herself were omitting a heavenly glow, and having a noticeable effect on Henry.
The three and a half minute tracking shot of King Henry carrying the by across the battlefield littered with English and French corpses to “Non Nobis Domine” and Patrick Doyle’s score is some of the best visual storytelling in any film I have seen in a single shot. English and French dead lie all around the survivors, wounded boys are carried off by soldiers, leafless trees match the similarly lifeless landscape, and sharp wooden stakes pierce the darkened sky. The expressions on the combatants as they look to each other and behold the king as another one of them move me every time. It captures the tragedy of the war and the bloodied king humbling himself to carry a dead child through muddy fields amidst lords and common soldiers. Without the need to flaunt a cast of thousands, the impact, emotion and weight of that scene speaks volumes, as if he were carrying the whole weight of the battle on his conscience.
There are some alterations to give certain scenes context in the film. Branagh incorporated flashbacks using extracts from Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 in which Henry interacts with the character of Falstaff, who, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, is never seen apart from being announced as dead by Mistress Quickly. These are allowable changes, and contrast the younger Henry among his soldiers with Henry as the King struggling to keep his soldiers together.
While there is much to praise in this film, Branagh sometimes has an issue with balancing out tone. After the hellish Siege of Harfleur, we’re introduced to Princess Catherine in a light-hearted, frivolous scene where she tries to pronounce English words. The scene is done entirely in French, and while it’s very well acted it does seem a bit at odds with the rest of the film. Then we see her joy melt away as she sees her father and the dauphin on their way to a war council. It’s also strange that the film has a host of British actors playing French lords without the accent, yet only Thompson and McEwan affect an accent. Henry goes from eloquent and fiery battle commander to stammering like a teenage boy in Catherine’s presence, and it does feel a bit too innocent considering this is not long after Agincourt. Ultimately, these scenes are so well acted and charming in of themselves, despite the tonal shifts, that I cannot regard them as flaws significant enough to harm the film.
The success of this film lies in its more grounded, earnest approach while still maintaining the rousing and heroic aspects of the Shakespeare play. The combination of Branagh’s directorial vision, his own stellar performance and the sublime work from the ensemble cast elevate the already commendable production values for a modestly budgeted film and wed the spirit of the historical epic to one of Shakespeare’s most rousing plays, while still retaining just enough modern sensitivity to the material to translate it in a way that can, and likely will, be regarded as exemplary to all generations.