Henry V (1989)

Henry V (1989), directed by Kenneth Branagh.

The game's afoot...Once more into the breach...We happy few, we band of brothers.

One of the best film versions of a Shakespeare play. Well photographed, exciting, realistic and intelligible. We do not have a cast of thousands for the battles, but even with a handful of soldiers the siege of Harfleur and battle of Agincourt are well done, the latter on a rainy day of fog, thick with mud and blood.

The text of the play apologizes for the poor staging:


And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work. Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies...

...but the film is a more vivid presentation. This is the first time I noticed the Homeric nature of the invocation: "O for a Muse of fire / that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention".

Henry V is the last play in a four part cycle and the back-story is important. Before he was king Henry was lively Prince Hal, something of a rakehell who hung out with Sir John Falstaff and his crew of bandits headquartered at Nell Quickley's tavern. Everyone expected him to be a terrible monarch, but he changed overnight, becoming very serious, and now no one knows what he is thinking or what he will do next.

His father usurped the throne and the previous king was murdered in prison. The night before the big battle Henry prays for forgiveness, worried that he is not a legitimate ruler. Like his father, he can't sleep. Presumably the lopsided victory comforts him.

Unlike the play where the Eastcheap gang is used comically, Branagh shows them unusually sober. They are all grieving for Falstaff and mourning the loss of Prince Hal to the monarchy. War is just looting for them and none end well.

Similarly, Fluellen (Ian Holm) has lost most of his witty repartee and become a dour soldier. In one scene the Welshman, an Irishman and a Scot argue about the conduct of a siege. Londoners must have found that hilarious.

I think I am as cynical and resistant to drum-beating propaganda as the next hardened movie watcher, but the St Crispin's Day speech really does produce goose-bumps. But, having seen this a few times, we now fast forward through the bit where the French princess (Emma Thompson) gets her English lesson.

Wonderful Patrick Doyle score. I like all his film music and he appears as one of the soldiers in the big battle.

I have brief notes on other productions of the play at Shakespeare on Film and Video.