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'Henry V' :

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 15, 1989


Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh;
Derek Jacobi;
Paul Scofield;
Judi Dench;
Ian Holm;
Emma Thompson;
Reobert Stephens;
Geraldine McEwan;
Alec McCowen
Parental guidance suggested
Costume Design

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Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" emerges from the darkness with the rip and sputter of a struck match. It's a magnificent beginning and a startling metaphor -- an inspired equivalent for Shakespeare's "muse of fire" -- and the first stroke of brilliance in this audacious, resonant, passionate film.

With this spark, Shakespeare's spokesman, Chorus (Derek Jacobi), flings open the door on his author's play, and the 28-year-old Branagh on his career as filmmaker. The work the young actor-director does here is steeped in powerful emotion; a more auspicious, more thrilling debut could not be imagined.

Dark as pitch, and cold enough to chill the marrow, the film begins on the eve of war against France. We first see this Henry sitting upon his throne, surrounded by his advisers, a pale, potato-faced boy with an unyielding mouth and flinty eyes. Still, whatever youthfulness is reflected in his appearance is overruled by his actions. Majesty weighs heavily on this monarch. Knowing his words make policy, he weighs them carefully, and if, for example, he allows himself to rail against the French ambassador, pledging to take revenge for the insults of the ambassador's masters, he does so with the knowledge that his country's course is already set and his florid anger is more show than real.

In Branagh's Henry, traces of Falstaff's roistering playmate Hal are revealed only in the young king's determination to blot them out. This Harry is straight-faced and devout and determined, a man with something to prove. The tone of his youth, the despised dream from which he awakened to become king, is gorgeously evoked in amber-hued flashback, with Bardolph (Richard Briers), Nym (Geoffrey Hutchins) and Pistol (Robert Stephens) all gathered 'round Falstaff's pot-bellied warmth. Just as deftly, though, we're shown the sternness of spirit that will cause the young king to banish his great, round friend (Robbie Coltrane) and, along with him, his own youthful wildness.

But though this Harry is thoughtful, he is neither moody nor neurotic. He is not, in this sense, a modern hero. Yet neither is he the one-dimensional boy scout he is often portrayed as being, and neither is the play, as Branagh conceives it, an exercise in patriotic uplift. Searching for a richer dimension, Branagh burrows under the play's stirring, jingoistic rhetoric, under the warlike posturing, to find something still, almost meditative. What he discovers there is a play that is about leadership and its burdens, that explores the manner in which kings set the tone for their countries, and what methods they use to forward their interests.

It is also a play about war, but not, as some reviewers have suggested, an anti-war play -- at least not in the commonplace sense. When Henry goes to war he goes wholeheartedly, as God's soldier, assured of the rightness of his claim. And Branagh does nothing as an actor or a director to undercut him. What he brings to actual battle sequences, though, is a tone of lamentation. When the English arrows fly against the French at Agincourt, the sound they make is like a tearing of the soul. And if there is glory in the heavy clanging of metal against metal and metal against flesh as the rains fall and the mud sucks at the soldiers' boots, it is a grim, devastating glory -- a glory weighed with sorrow.

In directing the battle scenes, Branagh has borrowed from Welles (particularly his staging of the Battle of Shrewsbury in "Chimes at Midnight") and Kurosawa, but there is enough of the director's inspiration in them to claim a greatness of their own. After the battle, when Henry trudges through the fields of the dead, carrying on his shoulders the body of a dead youth, the movie ascends to a kind of soulful grandeur -- not something we'd dare expect from a production of "Henry V."

Nor could we expect that this young director would be able to shift so deftly from the tragedy of the battlefield to the romantically comic wordplay of the king's courtship of his beautiful battle prize, Katherine (Emma Thompson). But everything about this remarkable production is exhilaratingly unexpected. The director urges a consummately forlorn performance out of Paul Scofield who, as the king of France, portions the decline of an entire nation into his kingly fatigue. At a baser station is Judi Dench, who as Mistress Quickly gives a heartbreaking eulogy for the dead Falstaff, and Ian Holmes's engagingly pedantic Welshman, Fluellen.

Most astounding, though, is the power of the film's leading actor. While Branagh's direction is forthright and articulate, his acting is brash and flamboyant. This is an actor who knows he's a bravura performer, and with each speech he throws down the gauntlet, challenging all comers. His rendering of the famous "Once more into the breach" address, the greatest halftime speech in human history, mounts in slow, urgent steps to its breathtaking climax. In addition to billowing emotion, there is a bracing intelligence at work that fortifies the readings and heightens their meaning. Before he demands surrender from the governor of Harfleur, the king glances briefly at his soldiers and, seeing not one ounce of fight left in them, decides to bluff his way to victory with an eloquent promise of the bloody carnage to come. And so vicious is his rhetoric, so gory his flights of language, that only a madman could oppose them.

This is nothing more than making great sense out of great poetry, but it is so rarely done that it deserves only the highest praise. Forty-five years ago, Laurence Olivier directed and starred in his own brilliant, history-making production of "Henry V" and, in doing so, announced his arrival as a thunderclap talent on both sides of the camera. Branagh, with his "Henry," has accomplished a similar feat, and while his work doesn't supplant Olivier's, it is worthy of a place beside it. He has made a "Henry V" for his time, and a masterful one. The king is dead, long live the king.

Henry V is Rated PG

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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