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Henry V (1989)

It was in 1989 that most folks first heard the name Kenneth Branagh. The 29-year-old actor was well-known in theater circles, having built a strong reputation in the UK in both Shakespearean productions and modern plays, but his only film role to that point had been in High Season. Thus, it was almost with a clap of thunder that Henry V arrived, both on the American art-house circuit and in a much-ballyhooed screening on PBS, a television channel not given to showing first-run theatrical films. Film critics practically fell over each other praising Branagh, declaring him to be "the next Olivier" and heaping adulation on Henry V's strong cast and exhaustive battle scenes. The film certainly stands as one of the most remarkable directorial debuts of the past 20 years, and while it made Branagh an international star, perhaps the only drawback for Branagh is that Henry V is too good. One could argue that Branagh has yet to direct a better film, even though he has made several more very good ones. Among all Shakespearean history plays, Henry V is a good choice for translating to film, in part because of its rather straightforward story, which keeps its focus almost entirely upon the young king and rarely drifts into awkward subplots. Drawn from both The Holinshed Chronicles and earlier stage productions, Shakespeare's play concerns the former Prince Hal, who in the Henry IV plays was given to carousing with Sir John Falstaff and other reprobates in the bawdy ale-houses of England. But upon his ascension to the throne, Henry abandons his juvenile ways, determined to be a thoughtful, resolute king who will do honor to his crown and country. When drawn into a dispute with France, Henry is informed by his highest advisors that he in fact has the rightful claim to the French throne (as all of the Plantagenet monarchs may have, due to the marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France in the early 1300s), and when a French diplomat delivers a cheeky insult from rival Dauphin to the king in his own court, Henry decides to invade France. Shakespeare's story has often been a popular one with audiences throughout the ages, not in part because it is among his most patriotic. Henry's military adventure had great appeal to Elizabethan audiences (it was first performed in 1599), who took pride in their nationality at the height of the English Renaissance. Similarly, Laurence Olivier undertook his 1944 film (now on DVD from Criterion) during the last months of World War II, where it was a blatant appeal to national chauvinism at a time of great sacrifice. But thanks to modern filmmaking, Branagh's Henry V is at least equal to Olivier's production, opting less for theatrical flourishes and instead for a gritty realism. The Bard's dialogue remains largely intact here, and the splendid cast is well up to the mark in every regard, but there is something incomparable about Branagh's delivery of the famous "St. Crispian's Day" speech when it is issued to his battle-weary troops in the French countryside, as King and soldiers alike are covered in sweat, blood, and earth. Likewise, the battle scenes (and particularly the Battle of Agincourt, the film's centerpiece) have an epic scope but never lose touch with their essential nature — men sworn to make war on each other, and fighting to the death on a brutal, unforgiving field. MGM's DVD edition of Henry V is sure to please fans of Kenneth Branagh's work, although it offers nothing in the way of supplements to attract curious viewers who have never seen it. The transfer is solid, in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and the audio is very rich, despite only being available in the original Dolby 2.0 Surround. But besides a trailer, that's it. Furthermore, Shakespearean films always should have English subtitles, which can help the viewer get through an initial viewing, and is always nice to queue up just to enjoy the language. Such has not been included here, although the closed-captioning in English is an acceptable substitute. Also starring Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Christian Bale, Simon Shepherd, James Larkin, Brian Blessed, John Sessions, Patrick Doyle, Robbie Coltrane, and Michael Maloney. Keep-case.

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