Saturday, April 30, 2005

Henry V d. Kenneth Branagh, 1989

Branagh's Henry V is a Henry V of the proletariat, decrying the decadence and excessiveness of England's upper class. Counterpoint to Olivier's adaptation, Branagh leaves the humor out and emphasizes the darker aspects of Shakespeare's play, highlighting the horrible cost of war.

The trio of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym is shown to be - rather than a troupe of bawdy jesters, as in Olivier's film - morally decrepit thieves, forsaken by their once Prince Hal, now King Harry. Their relation to Harry is fleshed out through a series of flashbacks, showing the onetime friendship shared by them. The idea that comes of this is personal gain at the expense of friendship and the wellbeing of others. Prince Hal was the savior for these three and their cohort, John Falstaff; his ascension to the throne meant freedom from poverty and the law for this band of waywards. But Hal forgets them. In a flashback, he tells Falstaff, "I know you not, old man." He lets Bardolph hang for stealing. Worst of all, Hal's reason for entering war with France, and putting thousands of men in harm's way, is the procurance of wealth and land; a procurance that, even though pursued with "right and conscience," is built on tenuous reason. When Pistol says, "To England will I steal, and there I'll steal," the implication is that, even though the war is won, he is still left with nothing. When war is won, the nobility benefits, when war is lost, the commoner dies.

This theme is muddled slightly by the virtuoso speechifying of Branagh, as King Harry. His Crispian speech in particular, rallying the spirits of the men, causes one to forget entirely that Harry's war with France is based on the clergy creating a diversion to steer his attention away from a bill of law. The question arises: is Branagh portraying the king in this manner to further differentiate between the ruling and working class, or is he saying that the king is justified regardless of the consequences? (A third option posits that Branagh is oblivious to Shakespeare's themes, but I find that hard to believe considering his expert understanding of pretty much every other aspect of the play.) The answer is ambiguous, but it seems that Branagh emphasizes Harry's character to show the obliviousness of the nobility to the realities of war. In the final scene, Harry tells Katherine, "Nice customs curtsy to great kings [...] we are the makers of manners." In essence, Harry is saying that the nobility is above the law; they make the law, ergo they can bend the law to their will. Earlier, in what first appears to be a throwaway scene, Katherine and her attendant, Alice, speak (in French) about the translation to English of body part names. Hand, fingers, nails, arm, elbow, et cetera – they go on until they reach "foot" and "gown," wherein the English translations sound similar to the French words for "fuck" and "cunt." The point of the scene is not humor - the point is the pettiness of the ruling class, and their obliviousness to the realities of war. Katherine is not expected to go fight in the war, but her social stature demands, at least, knowledge of, and interest in the current political climate rather than coy exchanges of vulgarity. Her negligence stands for that of the entire nobility - even though they send the men to war, they do not understand the gravity of that action.

Formally, Branagh's staging is fantastic: the battle at Agincourt becomes a ballet of blood, mud, and men; the campfire scene is bathed in dark oscuro tones, and throughout Branagh nods a slight homage to his antecessor, Olivier. Derek Jacobi, as the Chorus, falters a bit, lending a Marty Stouffer's Wild America ambiance to the otherwise note-perfect atmosphere.

Branagh chose to deemphasize the frivolity of Henry V and accentuate the tragedy. Contrasting Olivier's Henry V, Branagh's adaptation shows how rich the source material is. Both works are true to the spirit of the play. I prefer Branagh's, finding the thematic territory deeper and of greater worth. It succeeds on so many levels - as entertainment, social commentary , and political doctrine - that it must be considered both a great film and adaptation.


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23 October, 2005 08:48  

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