As we are introduced to the English court in the opening reel of Henry V, plots are being hatched. Then the king makes his entrance, announced by heralds and soldiers and rapt attention from all assembled. We can’t quite see the king, just flashes of his royal form as it strides by. Then, when he settles on his throne and speaks, we finally look upon him.
The effect is surprising, after all that fuss: King Harry is reedy, blond, boyish; a thin-lipped boy slumped in the great chair as though swamped by its kingly weight. This is a clever twist on the customary heroic entrance, and an announcement that this Henry V is a far cry from Laurence Olivier’s chiseled, valiant Henry (in Olivier’s rousing 1944 film version of the play).
This new version comes from actor-director Kenneth Branagh, who has made a muscular epic, full of earth and blood. As a director, Branagh finds a supremely straightforward storytelling groove, free of Great Play frippery. As an actor, Branagh creates a king who is young, self-aware, susceptible to the attractions of power but also repelled by them.
This Henry still has its rousing moments, such as the king’s great St. Crispin’s Day speech to his tattered troops before they march off to what will be an English victory against overwhelming French odds. But even the victory is muted by the stench of death and the grime of the battle. (The battle scene, in mud and on horseback, recalls two great predecessors from films adapted from Shakespeare: Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.)
Branagh is bolstered by an excellent supporting cast. Derek Jacobi, in modern dress on a soundstage, is the Chorus who introduces the play. Paul Scofield does cool work as the French king; Robert Stephens and Richard Briers are fine as the two reminders of Henry’s wicked past. Falstaff, played by Robbie Coltrane, appears in a kind of flashback, in dialogue taken from the Henry IV plays.
And Emma Thompson, who in real life recently married Branagh, is the French princess wooed by Henry in the play’s final scene. They make a nice, exceptionally modern match.
At the age of 28 (just about the king’s age in the play), Kenneth Branagh has become Britain’s most talked-about actor. Little-known stateside for a couple of movies, High Season and A Month in the Country, Branagh has conquered England as an actor, director, and manager of his own theatrical troupe.
The impertinence of a young actor duplicating the revered Olivier’s great feat has not passed unnoticed, for Sir Larry’s 1944 film, a vibrant piece of wartime propaganda, holds a nearly sacred place in English film history.
“Somebody described it (the remake) as the greatest act of hubris since Prometheus absconded with the divine fire. I thought, that’s pushing it a bit, isn’t it?” Branagh said in Seattle recently on a publicity tour. “The fact is, there is a magnificent film there in existence, copies of which I will not be destroying when this one arrives.
“I knew it was coming, that kind of attitude. I can’t understand it myself. I’m sure that Olivier would just say, ‘Go ahead, make another film, it won’t be as good!’
“Things are re-interpreted in the theater all the time. That play doesn’t belong to Laurence Olivier any more than it belongs to me. It’s for everybody. The more you have a protectionist attitude toward that piece of work, the more it will get behind a glass booth and it will cease to be a living piece of art. It’ll be just a bloody museum piece.”
Branagh had played Henry V on stage a couple of years ago and felt it could be a popular film even for audiences afraid of Shakespeare.
“I saw it could be a version reflective of our times,” he said, “a kind of political thriller, a dark movie, very fast-moving, very doubt-ridden and guilt-ridden, with this central story of this guy, this young man—above all, young man. Not just the resolved Sir Lancelot kind of guy in shining armor, but somebody who was watching other people, sort of paranoid.
“The kind of thing that you see a lot in the media—that kind of behind-the-scenes thing about big figures who are responsible for thousands of other peoples’ lives.
“Acting styles have moved on, cinematic techniques have moved on these 50 years. It’s worth doing. For me, it was the richest mix of all the plays that I’ve worked on. It’s so different. That’s all you’ll notice about the two films; the differences, not the similarities.”
First published in the Herald, November 1989
Nice memory, this interview: sitting for an hour in the funky lobby of the Seven Gables theater, talking with this young guy who had the world on a string. Branagh was very disarming and charming, and to express his frustration with the system he said things like “I mean, fuck me,” with all the canny conviviality of someone who knows how effective it is when a Shakespearian actor speaks in the argot of the people. But sit with him for a while and you can see how others would follow his lead, and how he’d made a movie and founded his own theater company, and how he’d won the hand of the completely awesome Emma Thompson. I remember he talked about his dream of making Hamlet, and that he saw Hamlet as a giant house full of corridors and hallways—and darned if the movie he eventually made didn’t play exactly like that.