Shakespeare on Film: Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V

Shakespeare’s history plays are less familiar than his tragedies, but Henry V must still rank among his most important plays.  Henry’s rousing “St. Crispin’s Day” speech just before the battle has become the standard against which all battlefield speeches are measured, and for this alone is the play’s legacy assured.  For both its importance and its relative unfamiliarity, it was a fine choice for now veteran Shakespearean filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s freshman effort.

Released in 1989, the film was produced in a partnership of the Samuel Goldwyn Company, Renaissance Films, and the BBC.  Branagh directed and starred in the title role, supported by a host of fine actors, such as Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Paul Scofield and Judi Dench.  The soundtrack was composed by Patrick Doyle, who also played the role of Court in the film.

The first consideration in any assessment of the film must be its respect for the text.  Shakespeare’s words are his true legacy and the most fundamental reason why his plays remain relevant today.  At the same time, any production requires a host of interpretive decisions from stage direction to costume and setting, little of which is specified in the text.  For that matter, the length of the play is a consideration, particularly in film, where movies longer than three hours often try the audience’s patience.  For these reasons, deviations are common, and as long as they are respectful, they are wholly acceptable.

By this standard, the film is a most worthy adaptation of the play.  It is very clearly an abridgment, but one that is effected almost exclusively through a skillful cropping of the text, rather than by the wholesale elimination of scenes.  Only two scenes, Scenes IV and VI in Act IV, are entirely missing; Scene I in Act V is reduced to a single vignette presented at the end of Act IV.  None of these excisions is a serious loss.  Similarly, only one named character, the French Queen Isabel, is missing, and her presence in the play is marginal.

The decision to edit Shakespeare’s language should never be undertaken lightly, but in this case it was done with skill and a clear love of the original text.  The script adheres closely to the original play in outline, preserving the essence of all exchanges, largely gaining time by removing rhetorical flourishes, multiple examples, and explanatory material.  This was done so skillfully that such editorial changes would go unnoticed by someone who is not thoroughly familiar with the text of the play; dialogue flows naturally, and all important information is successfully imparted.

Not so self-evident is the addition of flashback scenes, fleshing out references in the text to a past before Henry’s reign, in which he was a friend of Sir John Falstaff and his retainers, among them the unfortunate Bardolph.  These scenes offer the audience a sense of who the earnestly-mourned but otherwise absent Sir John was, a sense of the king’s former familiarity even with common soldiers in his service, but also an awareness of how Henry’s succession to the kingship must change his personal relationships.  Branagh’s own words, taken from the liner notes to the soundtrack album, highlight his intention: “a warts-and-all study of leadership,” among several other things.  While he was simply Prince Harry, Henry could enjoy the companionship of Sir John and even odd fellows like Bardolph, but as king, he needed to take the needs of state into consideration.  He would not show preferences to Sir John  beyond the latter’s ability to serve, and he would not allow personal sentiment to stand in the way of the execution of justice, as the doomed Bardolph clearly hoped.  These scenes show, in greater detail, what Shakespeare chose to tell in brief, and they are a successful addition to the play.

Part of the reason for their success is the fact that all additional dialogue flows naturally with the original text.  The writers and editors were clearly familiar with Shakespeare’s language, and wrote material that could stand alongside his words without announcing their addition.  This same skill shows in the general editing of the text, from the removal of passages for the sake of time to small amendments that creep up throughout the film.  Some have no obvious purpose, such as the substitution of “Aye” for “Yes,” and one wonders whether these were done deliberately, or if they were minor errors that appeared during filming and weren’t considered worth a re-shoot.  Others, such as the Act III, Scene VI transformation of “I would desire the Duke to use his good pleasure” to “I would desire the Duke to do his good pleasure” might have been undertaken for clarity’s sake.  These changes are such that even those familiar with the play might overlook them if the film is not watched with the play itself in hand.

After the text, it is the performances that are most important, and in this respect there is nothing lacking.  Everyone, from Branagh as Henry V to a young Christian Bale as “Boy,” delivered a fine performance.  In part this is because each actor had mastered his or her dialogue to the point that it was delivered as if such speech were part of everyday conversation.  In this regard, special praise must be reserved for Emma Thompson, most of whose lines are in French; she delivered these lines with the same conviction with which such luminaries as Paul Scofield, Brian Blessed and Ian Holm delivered theirs, in English.

Mention must also be made of Derek Jacobi, who filled a very difficult role.  The Chorus was something of an affectation already in Shakespeare’s time, showing the legacy of classical Greek drama.  The Chorus allowed Shakespeare to add some narration to the play, and it served as something of a bridge between the audience and the events of the play.  Branagh chose not to dismiss the Chorus, but instead to embrace the concept and to place it in Jacobi’s capable hands.  With his total command of the language, Jacobi’s role is not questioned, despite the fact that he dresses like a modern man, speaks like an Elizabethan, and wanders at will from the backstage to the mud of the siege of Harfleur.

There is no bad performance in this film, and many stellar ones.  Branagh himself gives a marvelous performance in the title role, showing the full range of his character, from the introspection of the night before Agincourt to the glorious speech before the battle.

The production values are also very high in this film.  Not least in this category is the decision to set the film roughly in its proper historical period.  Shakespearean productions are well known for a wide variety of settings, from Elizabethan to contemporary periods, as well as “timeless” versions that seem to conform to no given period.  Branagh himself has been known to choose alternate periods for his films, sometimes jarringly so, but this one cleaves closely to its fifteenth-century origin.  In some matters, he availed himself of artistic license (for example, the king is woefully underprotected at the battle of Agincourt, with neither helmet nor plate, but only chainmail and possibly brigandine beneath his surcoat), but overall, the costuming and set design bear a passable likeness to historical truth.  Rough though it may be, such faithfulness adds to the value of the film.

The soundtrack, composed by Patrick Doyle, is a nearly constant companion that adds a great deal to the film.  Simpler than the Wagnerian Leitmotivs of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, it provides mainly emotional touchstones to enhance the drama of the scene without crowding the intrinsic musicality of Shakespeare’s language.  The one time that it truly comes to the fore, in the song “Non Nobis” that accompanies the aftermath of the battle, it proves highly effective; it takes a minor cue from Shakespeare’s play and enhances it into a major sequence.

It must be remembered that Henry V is a play, and not a poem or a novel.  It is really intended to be seen, rather than read off the page.  The production of a very fine film from one of Shakespeare’s plays is always a welcome event.  Branagh’s film of Henry V is one of the finest contemporary productions, and worth a place in the video library of any Shakespeare enthusiast.


Bennett, Matthew and Jeffrey Burn.  Agincourt 1415.  Osprey, 1991.

Branagh, Kenneth.  Henry V.  1989

Doyle,  Patrick.  Original Soundtrack Recording: Henry V.  EMI digital, 1989.

Shakespeare, William.  King Henry the Fifth.


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