Just 29 when he made this, Kenneth Branagh fired a shot across the bow of no less a figure than Laurence Olivier, who had, forty-five years earlier, also directed and starred in his own adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play. Olivier’s version, made in wartime, was intended as a patriotic rallying cry for a weary nation. Branagh’s grittier, more ambiguous version is no less accomplished, although it could stand to be slightly better paced.
As we begin, England is led by the young, lightly regarded King Henry (Branagh) and stands on the brink of war with France (Often it seems that the only times that medieval England was not on the brink of war with France was when it was at war with France). He has been manipulated into staking a claim to the throne of France based on a complicated legal technicality. When the French Dauphin (heir to the throne, played by Michael Maloney) taunts him with a gift of tennis balls in lieu of his claim, as Bugs Bunny would say, “This means war.”
On the other side of the channel, the Dauphin is eager for battle but his father, the French king (Paul Scofield) is worried. He knows that Henry springs from a family line that has given France a royal spanking in the past. Their ace in the hole is a trio of English noblemen who have been paid to assassinate the king before the invasion is launched.
Other story threads involve a trio of common English soldiers, Bardolph (Richard Briers), Nym (Geoffrey Hutchings) and Pistol (Robert Stephens), who were friends with Henry before he become King. The film includes a few scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, showing the young prince betraying and disavowing his friend, Falstaff (Robby Coltrane), another friend of the trio and Mistress Quickly (Judi Dench). As the invasion begins, Falstaff is dying and the three men put aside their differences with each other and the king to do their patriotic duty.
After successfully capturing the town of Harfleur, Henry’s ragged army retreats to Calais to replenish, but are set upon by a vastly superior French force near the town of Agincourt.
With much more leeway than Shakespeare had inside the “Wooden O” of the Globe Theatre of his day, Branagh is able to open up the action and stage key scenes like Henry’s famous speeches at Harfleur and Agincourt in wide open battlefields, surrounded by flames, smoke and dozens of weary, dirty men. And those speeches, delivered with lusty vigor by Branagh the actor, are two pieces of film that any performer would kill to have on their resume.
The key battle scene at Agincourt, shot for the most part in a vast mud puddle full of men in armor, is dark, chaotic and violent and, when it’s over, even words of triumph carry an edge of sadness and loss. This version manages to condemn the savagery of war somehow without judging men’s lust for battle. This is not your grandfather’s Henry V.
If there is a flaw to be found, it is in a subplot involving the French King’s daughter, Katherine (Emma Thompson), who pragmatically tries to learn English before her hand in marriage becomes a prize to Henry after his victory at Agincourt. Even though they are part of Shakespeare’s text, these scenes add little to this film beyond a part for the director’s wife. Thompson is a great actress, of course, but her presence here does nothing but necessitate that the film continue past its natural ending: Branagh’s long unbroken dolly shot across the battlefield. This bravura bit of cinematography is the perfect emotional punctuation at the end of this movie. What comes after is anti-climax.
All things considered, however, Henry V was an impressive debut that would not only launch a high-profile directorial career but also spark a minor renaissance of Shakespeare on film over the next decade or so. Not bad for a working class kid from Belfast.