Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh (based on the play The Life of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare)
Kenneth Branagh has a knighthood, and that's swell, but he does not have too many fanboys; as one of the few who exist, I say this is awful and you ought to feel bad about it. Across his several disciplines, he has produced as substantial a body of work as almost any filmmaker of his cohort—it's inconvenient that his directorial debut was in 1989, so we can't just say "filmmakers of the 90s"—and today he only bears the black marks that you ought to expect that any filmmaker would have sustained after working steadily for three decades without the benefit of having Gen X hipsters anoint him as a brand in and of himself. Branagh's more impersonal films will eventually have to be dealt with, but I forward they're the direct result of our failure to properly appreciate him—they have taken on the unfortunate shape of a catch-22—with his later career pinging back and forth between a number of medium-small passion projects and the franchise and would-be franchise jobs he's accepted in order to maintain his industrial footing, whereas, sometimes, as in the case of his Poirot movies, Murder On the Orient Express and Death On the Nile, they can be both. (I can't say if I'll ultimately finish anything like a Branagh retrospective before it's out, but obviously my exigence for talking Branagh is his third Poirot, A Haunting In Venice, a fine birthday present from Branagh to me.)
Properly speaking, we'd start with Branagh's 1987 screen acting debut, A Month In the Country, and I have some intention of circling back; but it feels more correct to start here in 1989 with his first film as a director, Henry V, for it establishes one of the very cornerstones of Branagh's filmography, the Shakespearean adaptation, and better positions us to lay out his trajectory from Northern Irish refugee, to Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts student, to breakout stage actor, to co-founder of his own stage production company—by age 26—which lent its name, Renaissance, to his own movie production company, founded at approximately age 27. (Though of course, along with Bruce Sharman, the primary financial backer of the film was the BBC, somebody's tax dollars at work.) Henry V was important to Branagh, as it was that play, with Branagh in the title role, that confirmed him as a stage star in London in 1984, with the Royal Shakespeare Company's production playing to sold-out crowds and generally making itself known as a hit. I'm imagining a four-years-younger, somehow even-callower Branagh on the stage—heady stuff, if you've seen his 28 year old self in the film, but that's what acting's all about. Henry V, the film, was not a hit, exactly, and I cannot know if it was really expected to be, but it did business and probably justified its $9 million budget. More importantly, it was critically feted. Branagh got two Oscar nominations (director and actor); it demonstrated that the BAFTAs are as clumsy as the Oscars, inasmuch as Branagh was nominated for best actor, and won for best director, without Henry V actually being nominated for best film. (Oh, it also won an Oscar for Best Costume Design despite indication, with the "costumes by a rental company" credit, that a bunch of them were off-the-rack British Period Piece costumes. Quite fine costumes though--not to get into "substantive discussion" yet, but there's a very nice distinction made between the ragged English and more richly-attired French.)
So far so good for our poor Branagh, then, though one can wonder if being most famous for Shakespeare tended to seal Branagh as one of the uncoolest of his cohort, so that when he branched out—and to his credit he did so immediately—perhaps it still couldn't help but feel like the weird flailing of the theater kid for attention. (And, but of course, Branagh is second-most famous today as our single hammiest major actor, if "second-most" is right.) This feeling may have been magnified by the—never starchy, never overly precious, not even too reserved—but always reverent approach that Branagh took to Shakespeare, for he was but the vanguard of a whole wave of Shakespeare adaptations, and while I feel forever indebted to Branagh for showing me that Shakespeare didn't have to be grim homework, it would be a lie if I told you that Branagh's adaptations were the ones that show that most clearly, not when just a few years later we'll find the anachronistic radicalism of Richard Loncraine's "so how about we start the play out with a fucking tank?" Richard III and Baz Luhrmann's "horny teens for horny teens" Romeo + Juliet, the latter being, by far and rather objectively, the most influential on the culture at large. I'll cop that it was more influential to me personally, so far as my own "what good is a playwright who barely speaks English?" period went. (And indeed I am amused that the Chicago Film Critics, in embracing Branagh's Henry V, gave it their Best Foreign Language award—I don't think that's really correct, even if, in honesty, there's a good 15% of the dialogue I don't understand, and more without the subtitles on.) Even so, Branagh could be the champion of that movement on the basis of quantity alone: his omnibus Hamlet is right up there—and so is his Henry V.
It is not, I think, the intuitive choice for a Shakespeare adaptation when you have other options, even amongst his history plays. It had the advantage of not being cinematically exhausted, at least—I'm not sure there's any other major film adaptation between this and Laurence Olivier's 1944 Henry V, which I considered watching for a comparison before deciding against it. (I believe that shall be my rule as we deal with Branagh's Shakespeare. Besides being a little tired of time-consuming research, I fear that I wouldn't be fair—I simply can't imagine that I would have the grace in me to jam two Henry Vs into a 24-hour span and not treat the second recital of the exact same dialogue as anything besides grim homework. Best, then, that we deal with them as cinema first, Shakespeare second.) Yet I'll note that Olivier's had the contextual advantage of, well, being in 1944, released upon the embarkation of a more contemporary British campaign in France. I might surmise that Branagh's found some vague resonance with the Falkland War, though I can't imagine much (it was a British victory, but over for seven years by 1989, and if we overthink it, I don't see how a Hundred Years War story is a great allegory for the liberation of France, or the Falklands, or any meaningful British victory.)
Anyway, it's an odd choice beyond just being out-of-time military propaganda; it's also an actual sequel in continuity with previous works—no less than Shakespeare's third play to feature Henry of Monmouth (that's Branagh, incidentally, in case that was somehow unclear)—and kind of requires you to not only already know who Henry is, but who several ugly drunks who look like they have fleas are. Branagh, aware, interpolates material from one or the other Henry IVs to ground what this play is about—in so doing he prompts several questions about why Henry never seemed to make any friends his own age, but that's not Branagh's problem—and maybe it's here that we find the reason to do Henry V, the play essentially being about the hard choices a young king must make in order to transcend his rakish dipshit adolescence to fulfill his destiny as a model of sober kingship, and that is at least a little bit in conversation with a young man mainly known as a hotshit actor in another medium entirely trying his hand at film direction for the first time, deciding to kick off his career with an ambitious production of a play that outright requires a great deal of filmic elaboration, or else everybody is going to be really pissed that you made a Henry V and didn't do the Battle of Agincourt.
Branagh didn't need to abandon his friends and idols, though; Henry V features the who's-who of famous Britons you'd rightfully expect (your Brian Blesseds, your Judi Denches, your Ian Holms, your Robbie Coltranes), though perhaps most important to Branagh was Derek Jacobi, whose Hamlet fifteen years prior Branagh credits as the whole of his inspiration. He is deployed here as chorus, an already meta device made moreso by various means, not least his modern dress, and it's particularly effective in the contradiction between Shakespeare's apology for his play's Agincourt sucking and the fact that Branagh's movie's Agincourt does not. Likewise important, no doubt—it was their first project as husband and wife—was Emma Thompson, as Valois princess Catharine. Since Branagh decided (I think wisely) to treat the comic relief lowlifes of the play as dramatic texture instead (Holm's Fluellen has some humor to him, but a wan kind, wrenched out of trauma), Thompson's Catharine is it for any laughs; and she manages to make an impression out of proportion to her role's size, making fine work out of French pussy jokes in her English-lesson introduction. Since we might not all agree that saying "cunt" is necessarily hilarious (THE GREATEST WRITER IN OUR LANGUAGE'S HISTORY, EVERYONE), let's add that her final scene alongside Branagh is excellent, too, for better or worse breaking the gloomy spell cast by the Agincourt sequence by virtue of cuteness and having the film's one legitimately funny joke. The specific moment that makes it is still Branagh's, as Henry abruptly breaks off his woo of the princess in a noticeably panicky line read declaring the approach of her father, which is dizzyingly funny, considering that Henry has just established his dominance over said father by slaughtering most of his armed forces; but it's a nice note, however perverse, that goes against the grain (maybe Shakespeare intended it thus), letting us know there's a likeable human left in the bloody monarch after all.
The play is still the play, of course: most of it is about crushing that humanity down in favor of duty, and Henry's journey is rewarding predominantly as a result of Branagh's performance, which starts shockingly soft and boyish and becomes ever less so as Henry faces each challenge to his authority, before finally, happily rounding back to boyishness with Thompson. (The centerpiece scene, leaving aside Agincourt, is what Henry's own law now demands of him, as regards the fate of his old party buddy Bardolph (Richard Briers); but this is only the culmination, for every scene with Henry prior to Agincourt touches on this theme in one way or another.) It is obligatory, probably, to point to the rousing St. Crispin's Day speech, though I am almost certain that any St. Crispin's Day speech is a matter less of "acting" than it is its related talent, "charisma," and Branagh is tremendously charismatic onscreen when he chooses to be, and it's as a director that he's cagily withheld its full measure till this moment. My favorite beat from Branagh as an actor, then, involves an actual acting choice—after Bardolph's execution it begins to rain, and Branagh lets it take him completely out of his moment of grief and regret, now hardening into a brittle detached irony, so that he sort of rebels at how much God's overdoing it this morning, only as something like a peer, with the flippant snort you or I might give if we were caught in the rain during a pleasant walk.
But then, he would've needed to talk any other director into that, and even so Henry V is not only and possibly not even principally a vessel for Branagh's performance; it's also a work of some pretty wonderful craftsmanship. This is especially the case for its cinematography—which is curious, because it's well out of Kenneth MacMillan's usual ambit, so one's tempted to attribute the mood he captures at least as much to Branagh getting the right atmosphere out of him—and either way, it's exactly the right atmosphere, taking its cues from nothing less than 80s fantasy, but rooting that approach in physical, historical tangibility. Soft and diffuse, and frequently very dark, it's all in ways that situate the film in a misty, mythologized past before slamming that misty, mythologized past into the bluntest possible ugliness of the extraordinary grays of "Agincourt" (a field outside Shepperton Studios), the pinkish-gray of blood-stained mud merging into the white-gray of a squalling sky. There's a real early 80s cast to it, so that I kept thinking of Excalibur, only stripped of the mystic sparkliness. Branagh also got editor Michael Bradsell, late of another great Ken (Russell), and my expectation is that Branagh left Agincourt in Bradsell's hands to accomplish within Branagh's overall scheme. This is not to say, unfortunately, that we get "great editing" throughout: Branagh is definitely less certain about how his shots fit together than he is about how his movie should feel, and while the latter is more important, if I'm being critical (and I should be), he hasn't yet figured out that his style is constant energetic vitality, so for every siege of Harfleur, or hanging of Bardolph, that hits hard because Branagh knows exactly what he wants to do (one of the great and terrible things about Branagh the director is that he'd soon learn he doesn't always need a "why"), there is, occasionally, some clunk. (But at least the film never bottoms out again like it does during Henry's disguised nighttime visitation with his troops—which still looks good, in its combination of physical, dancing firelight and fanciful, blooming moonlight, getting right to the heart of what I've been talking about—but does also involve a truly wretched shot that racks focus between dialogue sources like a robot and made me want to throw a shoe at my screen. Maybe this is the just kind of error that crops up when an untested director has also ensured he is very rarely actually behind the camera; but Branagh's decisions about how focus should be used, or MacMillan's decisions on Branagh's behalf, are not unerringly good.)
Branagh is mostly on solid ground about how to streamline the play, and I tremendously appreciate, for instance, how he communicates the consequences of Henry's incognito conflict with a common soldier in four seconds of silent storytelling, rather than what must be five stultifying minutes of blather onstage. Branagh does, however, make one very eyebrow-raising elision; most accounts of Agincourt are semi-lies, but I would consider calling this one despicable.
I earnestly don't know how to treat it myself, because it bothers me a great deal: Branagh dutifully retains the massacre that Shakespeare only invented—"the [b]oys and baggage"—and then completely cuts all reference to the massacre that actually happened, Henry's tactical decision in the midst of battle to execute prisoners for fear they'd suddenly un-surrender. I understand Branagh's quandary: it's thorny material—thorny enough that people have, recently, held mock trials (presided over by American Supreme Court justices!), to determine whether this particular 15th century leader was a war criminal*—and Shakespeare is no help, to the point that it seems to be in the play simply because it's in the chronicles, with very little moral dimension, and not much causal sense, inasmuch as ten lines later Henry's threatening to kill the prisoners whom he's already ordered dead (and at the end of the day, there are, still, a great many prisoners). It feels like it ought to be Henry's final test—the summation of the conflict between continental chivalry and chilly English rationalism, already embodied in a battle between longbowmen and unprofessional French knights who decades later doomed themselves to repeat Crécy over again—and even though the material simply isn't there to rework, it's disappointing that Branagh quailed so hard he just decided the executions didn't happen at all.
Accordingly, Branagh's Agincourt just is—and, in this treatment, it's enough. I have described its basic look, and there are extraordinary details, particularly the sound design; Branagh was clearly keen, within the constraints of the play (and like Olivier), to do homage to those famed longbowmen, and the whoosh like a hurricane wind that accompanies their volleys of arrows, when joined to shots of their hapless victims collapsing into the quagmire, can send shivers down the spine. But the whole thing is fascinatingly-built, simultaneously absolutely cinematic and the most literalistic adaptation of the text, or non-text, that you could imagine. As Shakespeare barely actually describes Agincourt, Branagh decides that he must follow suit, after a fashion, conjuring his Agincourt as almost pure impression—a collage of this act of violence and that act of violence, and this slow-motion shot of him clomping through mud, smashed together, intuitive but a total geographical slurry, scarcely cohering in space and barely even cohering in time. It's horror, chaos, and mud, backed by the best efforts of Patrick Doyle's score where he keeps getting this close to just doing "Night On Bald Mountain" (which is superior, anyway, to the "let's win the baseball game!" cues of the St. Crispin speech), and it's gruesomely effective; but what turns this good scene into a great scene is its aftermath, as the chopped-up frenzy of battle is replaced by a single, enormously-long mobile take across the battlefield while the English sing a hymn, only establishing Agincourt as a place where something historically crucial happened after what's happened is over, the film's form itself coalescing around the maker of its history, its heroic king. And then, at the very tail end of a shot that probably cost $100,000, Branagh literally looks right into the Goddamned camera. My only complaint, my one critique, is that he and Madsell rendered this grand gesture somewhat blink-and-miss-it, rather than settling on it for long seconds and demanding that you really, truly reckon with a victory so resounding that, six hundred years later, they made a movie about it.
*Seems like an idiotic waste of fucking time (let's try fellow POW-killer Jeanne d'Arc while we're at it! oh wait), but maybe that's just me.