Henry V – Shakespeare Week

One of my favorite plays this past outdoor season was The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Merry Wives was written in part because Sir John Falstaff had proven to be a very popular character in the histories. Naturally I chose to go back to one of those histories.

Henry V is currently available on instant Netflix.

Henry V (1989) – Rated PG-13

“Making his directing debut, Kenneth Branagh does William Shakespeare’s play proud in this epic screen adaptation that follows headstrong King Henry V as he leads a heavily outnumbered army into a territorial war against France.”

“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day until the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition, and gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks, that fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day! “

Above is just a part of the rousing St. Crispian speech. As with any of Shakespeare’s plays, I could go on putting quote after quote. The bard’s facility with language is enviable. Laurence Olivier filmed a wonderful version of Henry V back in 1948 but I daresay that this Kenneth Branagh version is the definitive work.

Derek Jacobi is brilliant as the Chorus and does a wonderful job setting the stage. Branagh has Jacobi flex back and forth from a modern performance of the play to the actual time period. Where such transitions would be problematic, Jacobi is only heard in voiceover.

Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Henry V is electric. He knows exactly when to emphasize and when to underplay lines. Branagh is a man who lives and breathes Shakespeare. His St. Crispian speech is quite rousing.

Everyone else’s performance is spot on. Brian Blessed gives a very nuanced performance as Exeter, not something he is known for. Robbie Coltrane is excellent in his all-too-brief role of Falstaff. Judi Dench makes a great Nell and Emma Thompson has two scenes as Princess Katherine.

The only quibble I have with the film are the battle sequences. Probably due to finances but also because of the nature of plays, the battle scenes are of a much smaller scale than was historically the case. The slaughter of the French by the English longbow (over 3/4 of Henry’s army were longbowmen) is not really given attention here. Then again the sheer will of Henry and his ability to inspire is part of the theme of the play.

Oh wait I have one more quibble. After so thoroughly enjoying Falstaff, Pistol, Corporal Nym, and Bardolph in Merry Wives, I was disheartened to see how few survive Henry V.

People Watch: We missed him entirely but we noticed in the end credits that Christian Bale played Robin the luggage boy.