Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh, from the play by William Shakespeare
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Brian Blessed, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, Christian Bale, Alec McCowen, and Robbie Coltrane
I am ignorant. Not of everything, because I definitely know stuff. But I do have some gaps in my knowledge, the only one of importance here being the writings of William Shakespeare.
If we’re honest, I’m hardly the only Shakespeare-ignorant one among us. In fact, I’m probably fairly typical. Truthfully, though Shakespeare has enduring popularity, he is not a writer for the masses. No matter what your high school English teachers, or college profs had to say about his enduring relevance and his appeal to audiences at the time, he is no longer a writer aiming for mass popularity. He is not the grandfather of rap. He is not the touchstone of all poets. He is not—
He’s a writer for the elites, plain and simple. For certain kind of elite.
That said, despite my struggles I still see greatness in the writing. His plots, and his understanding of the human condition, and it’s motivation, are mostly brilliant. What I find less brilliant, is the language.
To some, the language of Shakespeare is the point – It is poetry!, they say – where to others the language is a chore. Including me.
If I’m honest – if we’re all honest – Shakespeare is mostly impenetrable. Unless you are one of the learned few who’ve spent months or years doing the homework of Shakespeare, parsing through the history of the plays and the language to understand the allusions and references made in the text, he is not going to be a casual pleasure. After all, if your enjoyment of a thing is dependent upon having previously studied it, or requires you to have some prior exposure to it to ‘get it’, it will never exist for casual enjoyment. And because Shakespeare’s writing demands study and rigor, the distance between his academic reputation and his practical reputation will continue to widen with each passing year.
This is why when watching Henry V, a movie that makes no effort to bridge the divide between the text and the audience, it occurred to me that Shakespeare without context is like a foreign movie without subtitles. Yes, you can generally follow the big picture and plot through context clues, but you lose the nuance. If you’re lucky, now and then you understand a stray word, because somehow there’s always going to be some foreign word you understand, no matter the language, but this is only just now and then.
And as if to make my point for me, Henry V does just that, becoming a film in another language. It occurs when the action shifts from England to France and meet the French Princess Katharine, who only speaks French. But rather than give us the subtitles of what she’s saying, the film lets her speak in her native language, context free, with only the occasional English word dropping in. To be honest, this scene made more sense than the rest of the movie because, rather than trying to unpack the meaning of the English being spoken on screen and falling farther behind the film, I simply followed the visuals and got the story of the scene from the context clues.
Which brings up this realization – Shakespeare’s language is supposed to be the draw but for me is alienating. It makes what would otherwise be approachable remote. For Henry V the only thing not remote were those few scenes involving Falstaff, but only because I’d done a little bit of homework on that character before, having seen Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and parsed through that movie’s plot summary on Wikipedia. Which just points back to my earlier assertion that Shakespeare is only truly enjoyable after you’ve studied Shakespeare.
What’s It About?
The King of England, Henry V (Branagh), goes to war with France over the belief he is the rightful heir to that crown. Why does he believe he’s the rightful King of France? I don’t know – the reasons were not entirely clear to me and, honestly, were likely inconsequential. He thought he was King so went to France to claim the crown. At the end, he conquers France and marries a French princess, so as to mollify the French people.
Is It Any Good?
Given I spent something like 500 words explaining the impenetrability of Shakespeare at the start of all this, it’s no surprise I have no idea if Henry V was any good as a Shakespeare adaptation. The only thing I can rate the film as is pure cinema, and on those grounds it’s not bad. Branagh’s direction is fine – more on that later – and his acting is also fine. He is especially good at reading the words in the script with inflection and fierceness, doesn’t seem to trip over any of the dialog, and where he is to burn with repressed anger, he does so. Does that make for a good performance of this part? Maybe. I can’t say for certain one way or the other. Because, as I said before, I am ignorant.
And therein is the rub of acting in a Shakespeare movie – it’s hard to tell the good from the bad because half of what you might base your opinions on, specifically how the actors play the script, are unavailable to you by virtue of impenetrability. That all said, if there was a failing in Branagh’s performance it’s that I was always aware Branagh was playing a part and his monologues were not off the cuff, as if discovered in the moment, but clearly came from a script.
That said, one performer in the film stood out to me – Emma Thompson as the French Princess Katharine. Her part is small, confined to just two scenes, but in those two scenes she is lovely and enjoyable. She is a breath of fresh air. She brought levity. Whether her French accent is any good or not, I don’t know, but I still found her wonderful. Better, she was one of the few in the film who didn’t seem to just be reading the script, but seemed to inhabit the part. In the previous entry in this series on Howard’s End, I concluded that Thompson was far-too-radiant to ever be considered an old maid, so while she was lovely and charming, I didn’t quite buy her in the part. However, her radiance works perfectly in the part of a Princess, and it was a treat when she popped up on screen.
As an aside, given I also enjoyed Thompson very much in The Remains of the Day, I guess one thing that The Also-Rans Project has made clear to me is I have a thing for 90s-era Emma Thompson.
Better Than Best?
Given Henry V was not a Best Picture nominee, it doesn’t get the Better Than Best treatment in that race. However, it was nominated in the Best Director and Best Actor races, so that’s where we make our play.
Best Director 1989 was Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July. This was Stone’s second Best Director Oscar in three years, for what might have been his best film – despite the adoration Platoon gets, I personally lean towards JFK as his Best, though acknowledge Born on the Fourth of July is probably his most well-rounded. It does not have that same level of didactism or endlessly-annoying formal fuckery he brought to later films, and is fairly emotionally well-rounded, even as Nixon might have been his most emotionally satisfying. Quite simply, Born on the Fourth of July was the work of a man operating at the top of his talents.
By contrast, Henry V is the work of a man debuting his talents and getting a feel for directing for the screen. While Branagh proves himself better-than-competent for the job, and does do some nice work with the staging, it’s hardly the best directed film of 1989, nor is it the best directed Shakespeare film.
In my life I’ve seen the following Shakespeare films:
- Romeo and Juliet – both the Luhrman and the Zeffirelli versions
- Hamlet – both the Zeffirelli and Olivier versions
- The Taming of the Shrew – also a Zeffirelli film
- The Merchant of Venice – a Michael Radford film
- Chimes at Midnight, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Shakespeare In Love – neither of these three are official Shakespeare, though Chimes at Midnight comes closest
Of these, Olivier’s Hamlet is the most interestingly directed, leaning hard into its limitations and making something quite in keeping with German expressionism from it. Welles’ take on Chimes at Midnight has the best use of black and white, and also does well to take power from it’s financial limitations. Zeffirelli is a master with the lush romance of Romeo and Juliet, while Luhrman is as masterful when handling the lust and youthful exuberance of the same story.
Any of those four films are better directed than Henry V. To be fair, I’m not saying it was poorly directed, as it’s not. It just can’t overcome the staginess of the original text – seemingly on purpose – and lets it’s limited budget hinder it, rather than embolden it.
Problem 1: while Derek Jacobi is great at reading Shakespeare as the Chorus, and for giving us context as we move from one part of the story to the other, he appears as a modern character, in modern dress. He was simply modern. While I appreciated the context he gave, and appreciative how he speaks with conviction, I did not appreciate how he disrupted me straight out of the story.
Problem 2: Branagh the writer-director is too confined to the structure of the stage-play, with rigid acts and rigid settings. There are five acts and, for the most part, the action is confined to limited areas, making the film feel very much tied to the stage. Yes, this structure meant it was easy to follow the plot from Wikipedia, but as a filmic exercise, it was a bit dulling.
Problem 3: The film’s centerpiece is the Battle of Agincourt. This is the battle that culminates in English victory over the French, despite the English being greatly outnumbered. As a dramatic highpoint, it works well. As an action scene, it is only adequate. The problem is while the fighting is rightfully sloppy, in the mud and rain, it’s shot mostly in close-ups and medium shots, depriving us of the scale of the battle. Though we are told the English are outnumbered 5-to-1, without an overarching view of the battle we never actually see what this means. Certainly, this was a product of the budget, because the scene would have required more than 10,000 extras at a time when CGI could not augment it, but that does not matter to me. All that matters to me is, if overcoming great odds is the point of a sequence, you need to make sure the audience sees this in a literal, tangible way.
As to Branagh the actor, Best Actor 1989 was Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot, one of the great immersive performances in film history. To be better than that would require some next-level acting from Branagh that he just doesn’t produce.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 FYI, I do not speak French.
 I could also have included many Shakespeare adjacent films, like Titanic and West Side Story, given they borrow from Romeo and Juliet, to varying degrees, but to do so opens a whole can of worms I don’t want to get into.