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Britflix: Henry V

"For England and Saint George!"

It is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, a battle celebrated in England for being a triumph against adversity when an outnumbered English Army defeated the French under the most hostile conditions possible. To celebrate, let us look at one of the best representations of the battle on film: the 1989 adaptation of Henry V.

Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) has ascended into the throne of England and the Church convinces the new king to seek his claim for the French crown in a move to prevent Henry from taking the Church’s lands. Insulted by the French, Henry takes England to war, leading to the famous battle.
henry v 1989 still
Henry V was Kenneth Branagh’s directional debut and one of his best movies as an actor and director. Branagh followed in the footsteps of his mentor Laurence Olivier, both being Shakespearian actors who made their directional debuts by adapting Henry V. The Olivier version was a highly stylized movie that used the stage as a setting and used a medieval art style for most of the running time. Branagh went for a grounded, realistic approach, filming with natural lighting in castles and halls and showing the exteriors to be wet and muddy. The Olivier version was made as a piece of pro-war propaganda. Made during the Second World War, it celebrated an unexpected English victory, while Branagh’s is more an anti-war take, showing the struggles and hardships of war and how hard fought this remarkable victory was to achieve.

Branagh excels in his performance as Henry V, showing a full range playing the king. He is brooding in the beginning as he contemplates whether to go to war with France, he shows his ruthless streak against three traitors, Branagh brings great emotion displaying what it is to be overwhelmed with his duty as the king by possibly leading his men to folly and death. These moments occur when Henry suffers doubts before the battle, delivering¬†a soliloquy and showing the pain on Henry’s face as he has to enact a death sentence to one of his old war buddies and relief after the seize of Harfleur. Despite the doubts Henry suffers, Branagh delivers Shakespeare’s famous speeches with passion and gusto; you would still follow him into battle despite the dire situation the English army was in. The ‘once more unto the breach dear friends’ and ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speeches are some of Shakespeare’s most famous and Branagh delivers some of the versions available.

When Branagh made the adaptation, he surrounded himself with a fantastic cast, having renowned Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi as the Chorus, the legendary Brian Blessed, a very emotional Judi Dench, Emma Thompson practicing her French skills, Robbie Coltrane in a small role as Sir John Falstaff and a fourteen-year-old Christian Bale. Blessed, an actor known for his booming voice was surprisingly subdued in his role as the Duke of Exeter and Christopher Ravenscroft was particularly great as the Herald for France who slowly develops respect for Henry and the English.

Even at this early stage in Branagh’s directing career he shows off visual prowess. His team brilliantly realizes the medieval world, showing the mud and grit the men suffer and using real locations. It’s the cinematography and the music are two fantastic features of the movie: Branagh and cinematographer Kenneth MacMillian allow a scene to play out, using long takes and slow camera movements to keep an actor’s performance unbroken, such as Dench’s Mistress Quickly’s speech before Henry’s former war buddies. The camera lingers on Branagh face to fully show the emotions going through Henry’s head during the course of the war. The cinematography and music culminates into sheer brilliance with a four minute long continuous shot at the end of the battle as Henry walks amongst the dead bodies after the battle with the Latin hymn “Non nobis” playing in the background. It was a perfect blend of directing, music and acting.

Shakespearean adaptations can at times be a hard sell, being very dense with the dialogue and plotting and associated to something most people had to learn at school. Branagh’s Henry V is one of the most accessible Shakespearean adaptations on screen, benefiting from being based on historical events and having a straight forward plot. There are few subplots and the dialogue is not as dense as other Shakespeare plays, making it easy enough for a modern audience to understand. Henry V has some of Shakespeare’s most famous pieces of dialogue with ‘Once more unto the breach’ being as famous as ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’. Even to people who do not enjoy Shakespearean adaptations it still works as a medieval war movie.

Henry V is the quintessential Shakespeare adaptation that started Branagh’s directoriaal career and kick-started a boom of Shakespearean adaptations in the 1990s. Though the 1989 version of Henry V has an anti-war approach, it still makes me proud to be English.

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