Henry V (1989)

2008 #29
Kenneth Branagh | 132 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Henry V (1989)Once more unto the breach, dear friends, as I delve into a second version of Henry V in as many (viewing) days. (I dread to think how many reviews of this film began with a similar quote-based pun.) Inevitably, having watched them so close together, this is as much a comment on the relative merits of Branagh’s and Olivier’s interpretations of Henry V as it is a review of Branagh’s film in its own right.

Branagh’s version opens with almost a direct homage to Olivier’s, though with an important difference. Olivier opened with the Chorus’ narration on a stage ; Branagh opens with the Chorus’ narration on a film set. Rather than wasting half an hour with this conceit (as Olivier did), Branagh pushes into the ‘reality’ of the story before another actor has even entered. And his reality is much more real. The film looks as if it’s lit by candles and daylight, the castles and tavern are rough and dark, the battlefields muddy and grimy; everyone gets dirty and bloodied by the fights. On the whole it’s a grittier and more realistic version. Yet there’s room for more than that. The story still seems concluded at the Battle of Agincourt, but the proposal scene no longer feels tacked on. In fact it’s now laugh-out-loud hilarious, with Branagh and Emma Thompson demonstrating the undeniable chemistry that would help make Much Ado About Nothing so good a few years later. Unlike Olivier’s fluffy limp to the credits, this is an entertaining round-off to the plot.

The fact I’d never seen a version of Henry V before Olivier’s ostensibly gives Branagh’s the benefit of a better understanding on my part. Practically, it matters little that I saw Olivier’s first, as the more modern and film-friendly performances in Branagh’s version mean that, while Olivier’s allowed me to broadly follow the majority of what was happening, Branagh’s gives more access to the nuances of both plot and character. He’s aided in the latter by the inclusion of scenes deemed inappropriate for a World War 2 propaganda film: in one, Henry and co confront three traitors; in another, he hangs an old friend in order to make an example. Other scenes are played differently too, so that Branagh’s Henry is a more complex and morally debatable figure, unlike Olivier’s bright-eyed hero. Whatever your opinions on the two actors on the whole, these changes make for a better character and therefore a better film.

It would be remiss not to mention the rest of the cast. Brian Blessed is positively restrained as Exeter, one of Henry’s key associates — you’d never imagine he could turn in such a performance if you’d only seen his recent go at hosting Have I Got News For You. Paul Schofield, as the aging French King, and Michael Maloney, as the contemptible Dauphin, help flesh out the French side more than Olivier’s version managed, as does Christopher Ravenscroft’s Mountjoy, the French herald who all but switches his allegiance. The English ranks are swelled by Bilbo Baggins, Hagrid, and the current incarnations of ‘M’ and Batman (don’t worry, the French have Miss Marple); not to mention the recognisable faces of Richard Briers, Danny Webb, Simon Shepherd and John Sessions (and no doubt others I’ve accidentally missed). Of course, a starry and recognisable cast does not necessarily a good film make, but this is a dependable lot and there are good performances all round — even if Ian Holm’s Welsh accent is somewhat dubious (though it’s a lunar leap on from the one in Olivier’s version).

And deserving of a paragraph unto himself is Derek Jacobi’s masterful Chorus, who, with just a handful of narrational lines and a big black coat, is somehow one of the coolest characters I’ve seen of late.

There’s no contest here for me. Olivier’s version is an over-stylised, propaganda-inspired, outdated version of Shakespeare, whereas Branagh’s is a comprehensible, realistic, textured and, perhaps most importantly, genuinely enjoyable interpretation.

4 out of 5

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