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Henry V Movie Review

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1989 – Kenneth Branagh –

Kenneth Branagh's version of Shakespeare's history play, previously filmed by Laurence Olivier, emphasizes ambiguity, complexity, and realism. It suggests that the best way to remake a classic film is to start with an equally strong but different concept and follow it imaginatively. To Branagh, Shakespeare's play is a “political debate inside an adventure story,” and his screen treatment opens in darkness as two churchmen (Charles Kay, Alec McCowen) convince the king of a complicated legal pretext to justify an invasion of France. They flank Henry and whisper conspiratorially into each ear. The muted production design uses browns and burgundy to darken the sets; nocturnal scenes abound: in one, at the siege at Harfleur, Henry is framed by the archway to the town and backlit by bursting flames from the battle as his horse rears up and he waves his sword.

The film uses a few flashbacks to mark the changes brought about in Henry by the responsibilities of kingship. During the death of Sir John Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane), we see glimpses of the famous tavern scene from Henry IV, Part One, which show Henry as Prince Hal and Falstaff and his cronies sporting at the inn. The hanging of Bardolph (Richard Briers) for looting a French church is one of the best examples of Henry's grim responsibilities as king. After a brief flashback reminds us of the old fun at the tavern, Henry authorizes the death of his erstwhile companion. As Bardolph rises high, legs kicking, hoisted from the branches of a tree, Henry watches and chokes back tears. (The play has the death occur offstage; Laurence Olivier omitted the material altogether.)

The spectacle of the final battle at Agincourt stresses mud, blood, and the human costs of war. (When the king is later handed a report that states only twenty-nine English have died in the fighting, it can only seem like an error.) The crowning glory to this scene is the long tracking shot Branagh devised as a conclusion. Henry orders a Te Deum to be sung honoring the dead, and one soldier begins as Patrick Doyle's music comes up on the soundtrack. Henry carries a body slung over his shoulder past all the carnage and drifting smoke of the previous battle as the camera follows him, showing us the grim victors and the final reckonings of the battle. The film features a roster of British stage veterans, and among the many distinguished performers Ian Holm, Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, and Judi Dench stand out.

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Derek Jacobi (Chorus), Simon Shepherd (Gloucester), James Larkin (Bedford), Brian Blessed (Exeter), Robert Stephens (Pistol), Ian Holm (Fluellen), James Simmons (York), Charles Kay (Archbishop of Canterbury), Alec McCowen (Bishop of Ely), Fabian Cartwright (Cambridge), Stephen Simms (Scroop), Emma Thompson (Princess Katharine), Paul Scofield (King Charles VI of France), Michael Maloney (Dauphin), Richard Easton (constable), Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly), Geraldine McEwan (Alice), Richard Innocent (Burgundy), Richard Briers (Bardolph), Geoffrey Hutchins (Nym), Jay Villiers (Grey), Edward Jewesbury (Erpingham), Christopher Ravenscroft (Mountjoy), Daniel Webb (Gower), Jimmy Yuill (Jamy), Robbie Coltrane (Falstaff), Christian Bale (boy) Screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh Cinematographer; Kenneth MacMillan Composer: Patrick Doyle Producer: Bruce Sharman for Renaissance Films and the BBC; released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company MPAA Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 137 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1989: Costume Design; Nominations: Actor (Kenneth Branagh), Director (Kenneth Branagh); British Academy Awards, 1989: Director (Kenneth Branagh); National Board of Review Awards, 1989: Director (Kenneth Branagh).

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