1989: Henry V
Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh
“The day is yours.”
There’s a trap filmmakers sometimes run into whenever they try to adapt Shakespeare: they get lost in a sense of importance. They become so preoccupied with the literary significance of Shakespeare that they fly right over the drama. So you end up with actors on-screen seeming positively stagebound, while they shout declamatory readings of Shakespeare’s lines more like they’re reciting a college term paper than telling a story. Because this is SHAKESPEARE, and it’s GOOD FOR YOU.
Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V avoids that pitfall, I imagine because his ego simply wouldn’t let this be some run-of-the-mill Shakespeare adaptation. The Bard forbid Branagh do anything stagebound or staid or boring. But whatever the reason, Branagh gives Henry V ferocious life, both in front of and behind the camera. Yes, he engages in an all-scenery diet, but as a king trying to rally his men to the cause of war with France, such appetites are justified. And the gusto with which he takes to Shakespeare’s dialog infects the entire cast. Nobody is engaging in sing-song servitude to meter like so many amateur productions do. The words flow, quiet when they need to be and roaring with bombast when the moment calls for it. The poetry is still there, the wordplay, but they’re allowed to breathe, to come out naturally. It’s the difference between learning and being taught; one leads to understanding, the other is just a bunch of facts being thrown at you.
And yet, while he’s taking great pains to make Henry V feel like a film and not a filmed play, Branagh does keep its most play-like element intact: the narrating chorus that opens and closes the story, and pops up throughout the set the scene. It would have been simple to leave this part out — most of the set-up it provides could easily be done visually — but Branagh smartly uses the role to transition us from a crowded movie theater to the castles of England and the fields of France. Instead of a stage, we start off on a movie set, and as Derek Jacobi rises to an appropriate crescendo at the end of the opening monologue, he bursts through a prop door and suddenly, we’re literally and figuratively inside the play. It’s a truly stirring beginning.
But I can’t talk about Henry V without talking about “Non Nobis,” the biggest bravura moment in a film filled with them. In the aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt, Branagh pulls off one of the greatest tracking shots of all time, a journey of a single take across the battlefield. So many small stories play out as Henry mournfully carries the body of a dead English boy: French peasants picking over the dead; a weary Exeter staggering across the field in his muddy platemail, seemingly walking just to be walking; the French herald offering a respectful nod to Henry, then protecting him from an angry band of peasants; the baleful look from French nobles as they gather around a fallen comrade; the Welsh and Scottish officers carrying off one of their dead; and finally, the exhausted, victorious Henry, gently placing the boy’s body on a cart. The whole sequence is scored with a hymn that begins with one voice and eventually soars into full chorus and orchestra, and the effect is both triumphant and elegiac. It’s a sequence that never fails to grip me whenever I watch the film, and something that could never be done as effectively on the stage.
I remember seeing Henry V with a friend of mine, and his comment immediately after the film was, “There’s a king I would follow.” Not that we were likely to be in a position to swear allegiance to a monarch any time soon, but I got his meaning. We hadn’t been watching mere historical pageantry, some sterile paean to a man long dead. This was a living, breathing person, invested with life and passion both from words written hundreds of years before and technology Shakespeare could have never dreamed of. Branagh understood the universality of Shakespeare, the idea that his works aren’t just for stuffy academics and dusty tomes, but for the very common people who would crowd the Globe in Shakespeare’s time. Now every town has a Globe, often with twenty stages or more with performances running all day. If only such muses of fire like Shakespeare and Branagh could light them all.