Henry V (1944)

2008 #28
Laurence Olivier | 131 mins | VHS | U

Henry V (1944)Or The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France, as the title card (and therefore IMDb) would have it.

The works of Shakespeare tend to be a love-it-or-hate-it experience for most people, often based on one’s social class and/or experiences at school (obviously not exclusively). Just to be awkward, I’m going to say I have mixed feelings about his plays: on the one hand, I consistently enjoy Macbeth and find Much Ado About Nothing a diverting enough rom-com; on the other, I was bored by Richard III, even when played by Sir Ian McKellen, and never got on with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (to pick just two examples for each side). I imagine most people have their likes and dislikes of course, but I often feel I fall between the the dislike Normal people have for Shakespeare and the love that Cultured people have for him.

This may seem beside the point, but it does lead to Olivier’s Henry V. Simply put, I didn’t much care for it. It failed to engage me, and I’d put this down to Olivier’s infamous staging (literally) of it. The first half hour is a recreation of the play’s first performance in 1600, complete with fluffed sound cues and heckles from the crowd. The goings-on backstage and performer/crowd interactions heavily distract from the actual text being performed, as much as anything because they’re more entertaining. Then, cued by one of the Chorus’s lines, the film moves to showing the story in ‘reality’ — except this is a reality made of painted scenery, primary-coloured landscapes, and cardboard fairy castles. It’s a deliberate effect, designed to emulate pre-Renaissance painting, but it didn’t work for me — it’s over-stylised and distracting, and if you’re not familiar with the play (as I wasn’t) getting distracted is a problem. The concept of transition from performance to reality has potential (as would the idea of presenting the whole thing on stage with crowd interactions, actually, considering I missed them when they went), but I personally feel Olivier executed it poorly. For one thing, it spends too long bedding in the feel of the stage performance before it gets round to the shift to reality.

Stylised productions can work, and excellently, but here the direction and acting are sometimes as flat as the castles. Actors arbitrarily shout some lines, hush others, and put in emphasis of dubious relevance — it’s like Shakespeare-by-numbers, the sort of production that reveres the text so much it doesn’t bother to think about it. It hampers any understanding of what they’re saying, especially for newcomers. Perhaps more fairly, the performance style is incredibly stagey. My degree-related reading suggests this is one of the earliest proper Shakespeare films (previous adaptations being silent or even less complete), so perhaps the idea of a more subdued, screen-acting style had yet to permeate such productions. Things do pick up as the film goes on: the battles are effective, and the proposal scene is more comfortably performed than the pre-war politics. That said, the story seems to be over once Agincourt is won, so by modern structural standards the hasty single-scene romance that follows feels pointlessly tacked on.

Olivier’s Henry V has received plenty of praise in its time, as well as derision, largely for its conception as World War 2 propaganda. The latter is hard to ignore, with grand speeches delivered in a way reminiscent of Churchill’s and scenes removed so that Henry’s character becomes unquestionably good — both aspects that are distinctly less relevant to today’s more complex, war-dubious world. Even leaving the propaganda aside, the performances are outdated, the design several stylised steps too far, and on the whole the production failed to engage or hold my interest. However good it may once have seemed, I think this version has had its day.

2 out of 5

Next I’ll be reviewing Kenneth Branagh’s all-star 1989 version of Henry V, here.

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