Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Henry V (1989) – I am FAR from the best person to write about this film, given that I am neither the biggest Shakespeare fan on this site, nor am I the one who has already written on the subject before . However, allow me humbly to submit Henry V as, if not the best play adaptation to screen ever, at least the best Shakespeare adaptation.
Let me be clear here: I only saw this film once, and it was many years ago while I was still in high school. Let me also state for the record that I have never seen a full stage production of the play. Now that I have willingly destroyed any credibility I might have had to talk about this, let me state my case:
Branagh’s Henry V absolutely TRANSCENDED the stage, and his film made the story and the language come to life. The sets, costumes, and direction lifted the story to a higher plane than it already possessed, and the actors took Shakespeare’s unparalleled language and used it as a tool, rather than the hindrance that modern actors so often suffer from.
In other words, it looks so authentic that you are transported there along with the characters, and it sounds so beautiful that even if you realize that these characters would never have really spoken this way, you still wish they did (and might even imagine them doing so in real life).
The only false note in the movie – and this was NOT Branagh’s fault – was Derek Jacobi as the Chorus. Jacobi’s role is that of omniscient narrator, and his monologues are both important to the plot and way too awesome to cut. On stage, the Chorus could come out onto the lip of the stage, in front of the closed curtain, and delivered his speeches while the sets changed behind him. Or, he could step directly in front of the action into a spotlight, and allow things to happen on the darkened stage behind him. There are any number of ways to get the Chorus on stage. On FILM however, it’s a different situation, and just about no solution works. By keeping him on a stage, or a set, it would have the jarring effect of removing the viewer from the story. By having the Chorus exist in the same location as the action (which Branagh did do), he feels like an anachronism; a modern-day man walking amongst King Harry and his men. It’s less jarring, but more weird. Again, I don’t know what could have been done here, but then again, Shakespeare never INTENDED for his play to be a movie either.
I think this adaptation works so well (and why, by extension, Shakespeare adaptations in general seem to work on screen) is that the story itself is so huge. The plot of Henry V is so massive (a war between England and France, culminating in the now legendary victory at Agincourt) that it’s baffling to think that it can be contained to the stage. Therefore, adding the pomp and circumstance that film can provide can only enhance and improve the experience for the filmgoer.
There are exceptions to this rule, but in the case of Henry V, the overall effect was pure triumph.