Our review of Henry V (1989) (Blu-ray), published February 23rd, 2015, is also available.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile.
A modern adaptation of the play, brought to the big screen by a passionate devotee of William Shakespeare, Henry V retains the richness of the original text and the electricity of a skilled theatrical presentation, even as it exploits the visual possibilities of the camera for a breadth and an intimacy not found in a staged play. As a catalog title, MGM gives Henry V only slight regard.
"O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention…"
Thus does the Chorus (Derek Jacobi) begin this Kenneth Branagh adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Henry V. It is hard to explain why this opening line, spoken by a true master of the theater, stirs such happy emotion within me. Whether it is recognition of the beauty of the sound and phrasing of Shakespeare, or anticipation of the world-class acting to follow, I imagine it is a combination of the two.
Ever since I first saw Henry V, I have been a devoted fan of Kenneth Branagh and his Shakespearean adaptations (so far including Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Othello, and Love's Labour's Lost, with Macbeth apparently on the way!), with a good deal of the charm coming from the impeccable visuals and the necessity for full attention when one of his films is viewed. The language, full force in all of its Shakespearean glory, is indeed English, but of such a different character that finding the meaning in the words is akin to learning a foreign tongue, and a task that cannot be performed unless you are willing to watch closely and listen closer, with your brain translating as you go.
Henry V is one of Shakespeare's historical plays, which though based upon the life of the same sovereign, does certainly take liberties with the facts in the service of dramatic necessity. As with any of these plays, an understanding of the context, while not necessary, will enhance the impact, so I would commend at least a brief survey of the history before viewing. Granted, it is not as wholly confusing as Richard III might be to the uninitiated, but Henry V still has quite a number of references and persons that might otherwise be lost on you. All in all, Henry V is a remarkable story that presents a portrait of stirring wartime leadership, combining patriotism, leadership, and courage, and the glory of a desperate battle against terrible odds even as it shows us the tough and nasty business of war.
The quality of the acting ensemble is simply amazing. All are at ease with the text, able to give their lines with a natural delivery, avoiding a stiff or "stage-y" presentation. Many of these actors and actresses are part of Branagh's usual "stable" of acting talent, and appear in various roles in his succeeding Shakespearean films, with some participants (such as Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi) being talented veterans of the Shakespearean stage in their own right.
In a modestly hopeful sign for the future of catalog title releases from MGM, Henry V sports an anamorphic video transfer. On the other hand, this transfer appears to have been matted to 1.85:1 from the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 for some inexplicable reason. Otherwise, this is a capable video transfer. The color saturation is by design kept in check by the limited color palette, intended to help convey the gritty, dark nature of the battles, but when color does escape onto the screen it is pleasing. Film defects and dirt are nearly absent, and only some video noise reveals itself as a minor distraction. Sharpness is average and shadow detail less than ideal in the many dim or dark scenes, but neither area is worthy of much censure.
The audio track is decent for the job, but not without its limitations. The front soundstage is generally narrow and focused in the center channel, with the main channels having little to do. The rear surrounds are heard in ambient support during the chaotic battle scenes, though little otherwise, and the subwoofer is called upon primarily for the low punch in Patrick Doyle's excellent, dramatic score. Some of the quietly spoken dialogue is difficult to hear, a slight problem magnified by the absence of English subtitles or captions (noted below). On the other hand, there are passages (such as in the opening Derek Jacobi monologue) where you may be surprised at the deep, sustained reverberations!
Facts of the Case
Once the Chorus (Derek Jacobi) has introduced the play, we open upon the young monarch, Henry V (Kenneth Branagh). In order to gain leverage against a bill pending in the House of Commons that imperils their power, the leaders of the Church have promised their King the financial and political backing to make a claim to the crown of France as well as his own. From across the English Channel, the heir to the throne of France, the Dauphin (Michael Maloney) sends his own message of contempt along with the declarations of his father, the King of France (Paul Scofield) that peremptorily dismiss Henry V's claim. Roused to anger, Henry sends back a message of warlike resolve and begins preparations for an invasion of France.
As the forces are assembled, we are able to look at the growing storm from the perspective of a group of common soldiers. Pistol (Robert Stephens), Bardolph (Richard Briers), and Nym (Geoffrey Hutchings), who along with Mistress Quickly (Judi Dench) and a boy (Christian Bale), make their grim preparations in the shadow of the deathbed of their lord, Sir Jack Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane). Once an inseparable companion of (at the time) Prince "Hal" for matters of drink, gambling and bawdy houses, Falstaff had his heart broken as the new King cast him aside as the once wild youth accepted the heavy burden of the crown and its attendant need for maturity and sober counsel.
An insidious plot from within his own nobles is no more than a brief distraction for Henry, who crosses into France with notable success. However, the campaign drags on until the specter of winter and sickness compel Henry to stop his depleted forces to rest and withdraw back into safety. At this critical juncture, the French advance with forces massed into a tremendous army, and back the vastly outnumbered English into a corner. Vowing to resist with words that still ring across the centuries, Henry rallies his men and so sets the stage for the legendary battle at an otherwise obscure location in France—Agincourt. In the aftermath of this bloody carnage, Henry turns from matters of state to those of the heart, as he woos the beautiful Catherine of France (Emma Thompson), whose broken English is well matched by his fumbling French, and draws this episode of history to a close.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not to discount the tremendous battle of Agincourt, but it should be noted (as any military historian would agree) that the English were in fact in a far better position than numbers indicated for two reasons: 1) The English yeoman was armed with the longbow, which could send a steel-tipped arrow through armor at astonishing distances, quickly followed by another, and another. 2) The French were dumb. Very dumb.
I tend to complain when English captions are left off a disc, but this criticism has particular force when the movie in question is presented in Shakespeare's English! Even for those of us for whom English is a native language (or at least speak fluent American), wading our way through the notable accents and unfamiliar lexicon of Henry V is a task that requires our full attention. Occasionally, I wished for English captions (or subtitles) to help discern the dialogue, which was in no way a fault of the audio track! I was forced to resort to the captioning available through my television.
While MGM at least deigned to grace us with an anamorphic transfer for Henry V, they have continued their usual practice of including next to nothing in the extra content department. The theatrical trailer is of more than usual interest, primarily because it uses music that (to the trailer's detriment) is very different from that used in the completed Henry V. Aside from that, the only additional content is a decent if skimpy two-page insert with some production notes and the chapter list. I bet Branagh would have been more than happy to do a commentary or an interview for this release, but that would have required MGM to exert a little effort for a catalog title. I also note that the previous US laserdisc release apparently included a short making-of featurette, at least. Sigh…For shame, MGM!
As a period drama, a war film, and a classic adaptation of a stirring play by William Shakespeare, Henry V works on all levels as a fine work that is visually pleasing and intellectually stimulating. Kenneth Branagh had the courage and vision to bring this labour of love to the big screen, for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. While MGM failed to give Henry V the extra content it deserves, at least the technical presentation is good and the price ($20 retail) hard to beat.
Henry V is once more acquitted, my dear friends. MGM is ordered brought before his Majesty to be judged for their sadly deficient attention to extra content.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.