Henry V (1989)

Certainly a more interesting adaptation than 1944 Olivier “Henry V”, but far from the masterful heights of Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight”, Branagh’s “Henry V” is an entertaining film full of prestige trappings (very talented cast, fantastic score, an impressive production) but one that feels oddly hollow at times, like there was no greater vision behind it other than simply…adapting the play.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the lack of any underpinning creative focus makes many scenes and directorial choices feel oddly adrift and meaningless. Even Olivier’s 1944 adaptation had a strong vision, to bolster English morale during the war. Welles’ adaptation of the Henriad focused on reframing the character of Falstaff through a more tragic lens, then examining the psychology behind the breakdown of he and Henry V’s relationship. The BBC’s 2012 “Hollow Crown” adaptation of the play also floundered thematically at times, but choosing restrained fidelity to the text rather than bombast (best displayed in its staging of Henry V’s “we happy few” speech), contextualising the story in sequence by adapting the earlier Henriad plays as part of the same production, and focusing on the arbitrariness of the monarchy, these were all acts of vision. What does this, Branagh’s version of “Henry V” have?

The Agincourt battle is highly praised, but all its strengths are the same strengths of Welles’ Battle of Shrewsbury in “Chimes at Midnight”. If this film was focused more on the horrors and meaningless of warfare over the jingoism inherent to aspects of the play, that would certainly be a different take than the 1940s Olivier version, but it wouldn’t really be original, as Welles already did it with his adaptation. I don’t even think Branagh was operating solely under that vision either, as many scenes in the first three acts play some of the nationalistic elements straight.

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The most interesting part of the film to me was Derek Jacobi’s Chrous, operating on a metatextual level acknowledging the film was a work of cinema. This was the sort of adaptational choice I feel works really with the play, one so concerned about the powers of language and storytelling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond a visual choice in the prologue. No greater comment is made about how cinema can affect people.

There’s moments of greatness here (Emma Thompson’s scenes are positively electrifying, Derek Jacobi is enormously entertaining, the Battle of Agincourt is a worthy tribute to Welles’ Battle of Shrewsbury), but the film ended up feeling pretty inconsequential and hollow to me, and not the intentional sort of hollowness the 2012 BBC adaptation focused on. I give it three longbows, and a soundstage.

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