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'Henry V' :

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 15, 1989


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

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IF ANYONE can grab William Shakespeare by the doublet and shake him out of the academic coma our schoolteachers and knighted thespians have put him in, it's Irish director Kenneth Branagh.

In this alert, rousing interpretation of "Henry V," Branagh beats down the doors of high art and drags the sleeping bard into the light of modern day, where Shakespearean theaters are twinplexes, military excursions (from Vietnam to the Falklands) are messy, protracted affairs and nobody says "I prithee" on the subway.

Taking streamlining liberty with the original text, Branagh has made a movie out of Shakespeare. By adroitly intermixing the play's memorable poetics (such as the Saint Crispin's Day speech and the "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" rally) with sure-fire movie values (expressive lighting, intimate close-ups, crisp and well-mounted editing -- particularly in the climactic Agincourt battle scene), he reaches out, not only to the cineastes and scholarly among us but also those for whom "Turner & Hooch" was an arresting drama with timeless moral implications.

Certainly, characters enunciate poetic paragraphs from high above and long ago, but as performed by Branagh (as Henry), Paul Scofield (the French king), Derek Jacobi (a modern-dress Chorus), Ian Holm (Captain Fluellen), Robert Stephens (Pistol), Robbie Coltrane (Falstaff), Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly) and others, those line-readings are the cloak-and-dagger mutterings, bawdy jokes and passionate utterances of living people.

None is more passionate than Branagh. As the boy who would be king, for whom vanquishing the French amounts to a Compleat British Monarch's coming of age, Branagh's performance is invigorating, boyishly stirring. He consumes his lines, sucks them hungrily for all the emotions. You feel the human struggle behind the epic resolve to win this thing for Harry, England and Saint George.

But Branagh's "Henry V" stops measurably short of moronic vainglory and steers toward the anti-epic sensibilities of "Platoon." Even as Branagh-the-performer puts a sympathetic, fetching face on what might have been bratty, royalist ambition, his direction probes every moral doubt available in the play -- the fact, for example, that Henry must risk the lives of his subjects for his own agenda and that, if he wishes to be king, he must execute anyone, friend or foe, who impedes that obsession.

Among those friends and foes, courtiers and soldiers, you'll find similarly sensitive interpreters (many of them reprising roles from previous theatrical productions), particularly Holm's upright Welsh captain, Robert Stephens's beer-ravaged commoner and Brian Blessed's subtly supportive Exeter. They have done what any good army or acting ensemble should -- put everything they've got behind an impassioned director

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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