Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was his directorial debut and at the time many scoffed at the very idea that this young whipper-snapper would dare to challenge Laurence Olivier and his then definitive version.
This film is a completely different proposition however, choosing to use the cinematic medium to great effect to breathe gritty, believable life into the characters and story. He is supported by one of the finest collections of Thespians ever assembled and whose pedigree shines through in a faultless collection of performances, from the arrogance and politicking of the nobles to the earthy pathos of the common soldier. Even the uninitiated who may be intimidated by the seemingly impenetrable prose should be able to follow the plot; clever use of performance and realism conveys the meaning of the florid dialogue, but I must admit that from time to time I wished I had some Cliff Notes to aid my understanding of the nuances.
The battle scenes are recreated in a way which is obviously influenced by the likes of John Boorman’s Excalibur; all sweat, blood and filth, offering a more human portrayal of bloodshed on such an epic scale. The highlights are of course all provided by Branagh’s excellent and naturalistic interpretation of Henry – although Paul Scofield’s subtle performance as the melancholy King of France is near its equal -most notably his pre-battle speeches which inspire without the clod-hopping patriotic manipulation previously seen in everything from Braveheart to Independence Day.
His inexperience behind the camera tells occasionally as he gets a little too carried away with slow motion and the battle is a little confusing, but as a whole Henry V is a great achievement.