Film Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior. 

There’s a keen sense of cinematic vision that really works here too. Derek Jacobi’s modern-dress Chorus is an almost David Attenborough-like figure as he takes us thrillingly through soundstages and locations to reveal the players within. And there’s effective dramatic license in incorporating brief flashbacks to Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 pays off beautifully in emphasising the role of Falstaff who, though he’d be highly familiar to theatregoers, would be something of a mystery to any newcomers to this film. The repurposing of “do not, when thou art King, hang a thief” equally works wonderfully.

From the sturm und drang of the battlefield, shot beautifully by Kenneth MacMillan, to the quiet wonder of the night before as the King wanders the encampment in disguise, this is a truly gripping piece of cinema and a fabulous adaptation of a play that I’m now hungry to see again…so thank the Lord that it is the glorious Michelle Terry who will be taking on the title role at the Open Air Theatre in the summer!

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