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About the Film:  Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V

By Jessica Elaine Ellison
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Sir Kenneth Branagh made his film directorial debut at the young age of 28 years old, while also starring in and adapting the screenplay for his critically acclaimed film,  Henry V.  While critics and audience members continue to be divided on the overall theme and messages present in the film, most can agree that Branagh’s bold take on a classic Shakespeare was quite the successful endeavor. Audiences and film studio executives had been skeptical of Shakespeare on film ever since the box office failure of Roman Polanski’s  Macbeth  in 1971. But the box office success and nearly universal positive reviews of  Henry V  nearly two decades later led to a historic moment for Shakespeare film adaptations. There had been few commercially successful filmed adaptations since Franco Zeffirelli’s  Romeo and Juliet  in 1968. Branagh’s version, applauded for playing engagingly with the duality of Henry and for making Shakespeare’s language more accessible, ended the drought and would lead to two decades of international Shakespeare on film adaptations, including ten major English-language Shakespeare film adaptations in the 1990s alone. The initial critical acclaim would also inspire Branagh to direct a total of six films based on Shakespeare’s plays.  

In all of his Shakespeare films, Branagh builds the narrative around a core cast of characters. In  Henry V  he had his core stars—himself (Henry V), Brian Blessed (Duke Thomas), Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly), Derek Jacobi (Chorus), Richard Briers (Bardolph), Michael Maloney (the Dauphin), and his then-wife Emma Thompson (Katharine)—and also added Paul Scofield (Charles VI), Robbie Coltrane (Sir John Falstaff), and a young Christian Bale (Robin). Many of the actors in Branagh’s film were also reprising their roles from the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production, showing just how heavily that production influenced Branagh. Surprisingly, Branagh had a relatively low budget for the film: about 4.5 million pounds, or about 6 million dollars. Branagh strayed from the path that Laurence Olivier had carved with his heroic 1944 version of  Henry V  and made unique design and filming choices. Whereas Olivier’s film used bright backdrops for the set, Branagh took a more muted approach. He utilized darker mood lighting and lots of backlighting to set the tone of the film and match the setting to the gritty dialogue. Branagh also used natural elements to enhance the set. Most notably, in the famed Saint Crispin’s day speech, the set looks like an actual battlefield and is covered in rain, mud, and dirt. This gritty filming approach is what set Branagh apart from earlier Shakespeare directors.  

Prior to directing the 1989 film, Branagh had played the titular role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of  Henry V , directed by Adrien Noble. Familiar with the play from a theatrical standpoint, Branagh adapted popular theatrical styles of the time and applied them to his own film. Specifically, Branagh reworked the Chorus, played by Derek Jacobi, to turn the character into more of a Brechtian stage manager—a character on the outside of the world of the film that functions as a narrator for the audience—rather than a traditional Elizabethan chorus. By relocating parts of the Chorus’ speeches to create nine total speeches rather than six, thus giving each scene had its own introduction, Branagh made the exposition easier to digest and created a narrative guide for the audience. Costuming also plays a role in how the Chorus interacts with the audience. In the late 20th-century, many productions, such as the aforementioned Royal Shakespeare Company production, had the Chorus in modern dress. Branagh followed suit and had Derek Jacobi dressed in contemporary styles in order to set the Chorus apart from the rest of the characters and make him more easily relatable to the audience.  

Branagh also borrowed an idea from Terry Hands’ 1975 production and enlarged the role of Montjoy, played by Christopher Ravenscroft, by giving the character lines from other French characters. By assigning Montjoy lines from the French Messenger, the character becomes a more defined role—a clear thinker and the neutral party. Montjoy is now the only French character who regards Henry with any kind of respect and without judgement. He, like the audience, is an outsider and his expanded role and defined goals allow for him to objectively assess Henry’s maturation.   

While critics agree that Branagh’s theatrical background was beneficial for directing the film, they disagree on the overall messages of the film and their effectiveness. There is no doubt that  Henry V  is a film about war, but does the film take an anti-war stance? To some, the focus on war and ruthless politics gives the film a gritty and gloomy feeling. The scenes that reflect upon Henry’s more negative attributes are surely meant to show the drawbacks of war and the burdens of leadership upon one individual. On the other hand, some view the film as having more redemptive qualities. The construction of Henry as an epic hero undoes the film’s brief anti-war stance and shows that anyone can be worthy of redemption.   

Many also view Henry as a Machiavellian character, a scheming and mischievous political operator. While Shakespeare may have originally written the character this way, and while some critics still cling to this reading, Branagh refuted this understanding of the character. Instead, he argued that the paradoxes of Henry should be fully explored and embraced. He stated that:   

From the beginning we agreed that the many paradoxes in the character should be explored as fully as possible. That we shouldn't try to explain them…I resolved once again that as complex a figure as this, engendering as he does so many ambivalent feelings, would not be given a performance which tried to explain him. 1    

Further:  

I had no desire to beg an audience’s forgiveness for a man who had invaded another country on dubious pretexts and with enormous loss of life. They had to make up 

1 Kenneth Branagh, Henry V" Players of Shakespeare 2: Further Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1988, pp. 97-100.

their own minds about the fascinating, enraging conflict between the ruthless killer and the Christian king. 2  

Instead of creating a one-sided character, Branagh welcomed ambiguity. Humans are not one-dimensional but rather complex individuals with shifting morals and changing outlooks.   

While the film’s perspectives on the nature of war and of Henry’s character remain debatable, what is clear is that this film highlights a journey. The Chorus welcomes us into the world of the film and guides us through the trials, tribulations, successes, and mistakes of a young leader. Whether one sees Henry as a future King, as a great hero, or as a selfish villain, there is no mistaking that Henry goes on a journey of self-discovery. Not only must he discover the hardships of leadership, he must do so while also discovering the many sacrifices that come with war. When the Chorus finally leads us out of the world of the film, we are left to meditate on what it means to be a leader and what it means to hold power.     

2 Kenneth Branagh, Beginning. (London: Chatto, 1989), pp. 144.