Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.

The Concept

Clip from Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.

Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.

Stage Olivier
Olivier as King Henry stands on a reconstruction of The Globe Theater in his 1944 film.

While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.

While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.

Derek Jacobi as the Chrous in Henry V

Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.

When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.

Branaugh in King Henry V

What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.

Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:

King Henry (Branaugh), talks in disguise to the soldier Williams (Michael Williams)
Comparison between Olivier’s 1944 version, and Branaugh’s 1989 movie portrayals of the Battle of Agincourt.

The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.

Non Nobis scene from Henry V

The Plot Of the Play

  • King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
  • The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
  • Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
  • Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais 
  • The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
  • Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.

Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.    

Historical Context

My Favorite Moments

I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.

  1. Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.

Supporting Cast

Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”

Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.

Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.

My Reaction

In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:

Branaugh in an interview with Bobbie Wygant in 1989.

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