William Shakespeare has a total of 37 plays and a 154 sonnets credited to him. The first play (Henry VI, Part 1) was written and performed in 1590-91, the last (Two Noble Kinsmen), in 1613. In between lies some of the greatest stage works ever created.
Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into countless films, television shows and stage-plays over the years, and influenced such a broad range of entertainment that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to completely tally.
To follow-up on my brief movie review series looking at Elizabethan-era films, here’s another look at some of the straight-up Shakespeare that has been adapted to the big screen. The choices are mainly looking at the adaptations of the stage-plays, rather than some of the more esoteric interpretations that have permeated the screen over the years, although I will violate that adage a few times to look at some of the more exceptional interpretations. Be advised, it doesn’t cover everything as there are a damn lot of ‘em…
So let’s get started….
Henry V (1989)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Simon Shepherd
First, right from the top: this is a rousing, blood-stirring, powerful (and fairly straight) adaptation of the play and very, very good film to boot.
Henry V is the story of King Henry V’s war with France (part of the Hundred Years War), culminating in the bloody triumph of the battle of Agincourt in 1415. One of Shakespeare’s “historicals”, Henry V was originally performed in 1599 at the Globe, “the wooden O” as immortalized by the Chorus:
But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Kenneth Branagh headlines as Henry V, backed by such theatrical luminaries such as Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed and Ian Holm. The film opens with Henry’s advisors debating and outlining his legal claim to the throne of France (barred by the Salic Law) progressing to the arrival of a messenger from the disdainful Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) and an insulting gift of a chest of tennis balls.
At this point, the viewer gets the first taste of Branagh’s icy and controlled take on Henry V, a character in direct contrast to the new King’s reputation among his foes as a wastrel and an immature brat princeling. Branagh portrays a Henry with a banked, almost visceral anger that only slips to reveal itself at the most climatic and stressful moments, such as the unmasking of the traitors at Dover, the siege of Harfleur and bloody chaos at Agincourt.
Derek Jacobi as the Chorus serves as de facto narrator, speaking directly to the viewer, criss-crossing scenes throughout the play to introduce new locations, plot points and background. The choice of having him in modern dress while all other characters are contemporaneous with Henry’s era, helps to set him aside and define his role for the audience.
The acting is superb and solid, even in minor supporting roles. Interestingly enough, the film setting is spare, almost stage-like in how it is implemented. Interior scenes are tight, dark and highly focused on the participants while exterior scenes rarely evoke any epic sense of either grandeur, geography or vast armies arrayed upon the field, even once the armies arrive at Agincourt. The film pre-dates the extensive use of CGI as seen in so many historical epics today, and it is possible budget constraints may have prevented large-scale sets and extras. The tight sets, close scenes and grim realism give the film and the characters a strong resonance and serve to help pull the viewer into the scene, focusing on the dialogue, the characters and the rich, rolling language. When Henry tours his lines in disguise the night before the battle, it drags the viewer into the small groups of soldiers, huddled around damp and sullen campfires, hungry, outnumbered and wet, awaiting their inevitable death at the hands of the vast French force that has cut them off from Calais.
One additional scene stands out, as a great piece of cinematic film-making. After the battle, when Henry is lamenting the fallen and concluding his disposition of the day, he hoists one of the dead pages on his back and carries the lifeless body through the muddy aftermath of the battle, as the soldiers sing Non nobis. This is a four-minute long, one-shot, tracking shot and it is brilliant. It’s not just a lifeless tracking shot done for scale - there is lots of story setting stuff going on here, from the dead Constable of France surrounded by his beaten nobles, glaring at the King as he passes; to widows churning through the field, cursing the English King before being shoved away by Henry’s men. It is absolutely terrific cinema.
As an added note, the dead boy he is carrying across the field: it’s Batman. By that I mean, it’s a very young Christian Bale, playing Robin, the Luggage Boy, who is slaughtered alongside the other boys and pages when the French loot Henry’s luggage train.
So. Henry V. Definitely give it a watch.