Home Entertainment Review: Henry V

Henry V (Kenneth Branagh – 1989) Back in the ancient days of 1989, a young whippersnapper version of Kenneth Branagh emerged to direct a feature film of William Shakespeare’s (you know, that guy) Henry V. He wasn’t even 30 at the time, he’d never directed a film before, and wasn’t particularly well know as a screen actor just yet. However, by the time the movie was released Branagh had assumed the role as the Laurence Olivier of the 90s who had free reign to bring the Bard to the screen whenever he damn well pleased. Branagh’s Henry V was in part a direct reaction to Olivier’s famous version, with the young scallywag stripping the comedy and embracing muddy grit over Olivier’s stylized and theatrical old fuddy-duddy vision. The results justifiably earned Branagh Best Actor and Best Director Oscar nominations, launched his career in both categories, and remains 25 years later easily one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations ever produced. It’s a masterpiece of this genre and likely still the finest thing that Branagh has ever directed (easy Thor fans, you know I’m right). Sadly, the brilliant film has been unavailable on Blu-ray…that is of course until now. Shout Factory has stepped up and delivered the goods for a film richly deserving of their attentions.

The film opens with a little fourth wall breaking. Rather than drop the chorus of Shakespeare’s play entirely, Branagh casts Derek Jacobi as a lone voice introducing the story from a film set and returns to the character a few times throughout. From there, Branagh gives himself a grandiose introduction then keeps the drama small for a while. He plays the political boardgame war building in paranoid discussions through shadowy corridors. The filmmaker makes no apologies for showcasing himself as an actor, yet keeps his performance as small and grounded as possible in context. He ingeniously employs a collection of flashbacks to the Henry IV plays to give his grandstanding king a humanizing backstory without distracting from the forward momentum of what is ultimately a bloodsoaked war film. 

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Branagh also cast the players surrounding him extraordinarily well. In addition to showcasing his own talents, Branagh milked his contemporary countryman talent for all they were worth. Stage stars like Judy Dench, Ian Holm, and Brian Blessed mixed with sketch comedy up-and-comers like Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane (even a teenage Christian Bale pops up in a small role following his extraordinary lead performance in Steven Spielberg’s still deeply undervalued Empire Of The Sun). All of the actors get at least a scene to slather their talents all over the screen and they all deliver. Yet, there’s barely any theatrical exaggeration to these performances. They all take the poetic text and find the small human truths within the words. It’s subdued Shakespeare, not unlike how Roman Polanski worked with his cast on Macbeth. As a result, Henry V has aged quite well and continues to feel like a contemporary reinvention of ancient text.

While the poetry and politics of Henry V are all carefully rendered on screen, a major part of the appeal of Branagh’s project was his decision to film it as a war movie. Dialogue scenes play out as paranoid suspense sequences with ratcheting tension that explode into the numerous battle sequences that bloat the running time in the middle of the film. In particular, the climatic Battle Of Agincourt sequence offers some pretty astounding spectacle. Mud stains and blood sprays liberally, with Branagh borrowing techniques liberally from Sam Peckinpah (the slow-mo, the editing, the brutality). It’s a thrilling bit of show-off filmmaking that still plays violence for pain and anguish, particularly in a final long tracking shot of corpses. It’s likely Branagh’s willingness to accept and morph Henry V into a bloody action film that caused it to connect with 80s audiences as deeply as any of his sensitive retellings of the text. Shakespeare was always creating mass entertainment after all and Branagh found a play that could fit a genre his contemporary audiences craved, while still feeding them the poetry they needed. 

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Henry V has only ever known a home video life on muddy DVDs and VHS tapes, so it was an act of curious excitement to put Shout’s new Blu-ray into my player and see how it held up. Shout have done a beautiful job restoring the film, digging new depth and detail out of the frames that haven’t been seen since theaters. Yet, it’s also impossible to deny that this is a deliberately dab and dirty production filtered through a golden brown hue. Henry V won’t vibrantly burst off your screen, but it’s not supposed to. The intended look of the film has been faithfully restored and the filthy, bloody details will pop whether you want to see them or not. The lossless soundtrack serves the difficult dialogue well and bursts to big life during the battle scenes or whenever Patrick Doyle’s moving score fills the back speakers.

Unfortunately, the special feature section is limited only to a trailer on this disc. That’s a real shame as it would have been wonderful to get a commentary or interview out of Branagh to hear his thoughts on his debut decades later, but that was sadly not to be. Still, the film is brilliant and the new HD presentation is remarkable, so it’s hard to complain. It’s also fascinating to revisit Henry V in light of Kenneth Branagh’s recent leap into blockbuster filmmaking with Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and his upcoming Cinderella. Henry V has the scope and ambition of a blockbuster, showcasing the director’s interest in such spectacle that he would put aside for a decade of Shakespeare. If Henry V remains Branagh’s most satisfying film as a director, that’s likely because it also remains the only project he’s taken on that combines all of his interests and talents. Hopefully when he’s done dabbling in popcorn for a while, Branagh will return to a project that will combine his gifts with spectacle and Shakespeare once more. If nothing else, it sure would be appropriate for a career that kicked off with Henry V to end with an epic film adaptation of King Lear, wouldn’t it? Don’t be surprised if that happens once Branagh’s learned all the tools of contemporary blockbuster dream-weaving and is ready to make something with resonance again. 

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