Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V is good Shakespeare, while still being good film. Branagh makes an effortless transition of the play into the screen, and his expertise with the play truly shows on screen, a true accomplishment, especially for a first time director like Branagh. Branagh’s cinematography is simple and to the point. He keeps his focus as close to the actor’s as possible, drawing on their skills to keep the audience’s focus. His shots stay close as possible, zoomed out just enough to show as much of the setting as possible for the audience to understand the context. Just as the director draws on the portrayals of the characters to carry the film, certain characters are also the downfall of the movie.
The film’s unique twist on the character of The Chorus is perhaps the most brilliant tool in Branagh’s arsenal. The character is a bit of an oddity, addressing the audience directly to reinforce their attention. In a limited stage setting like in Shakespeare’s time, this would be a valuable tool, but for the age of cinema, it’s mostly obsolete. On film, you can tell the audience where the scene is taking place by simply throwing up text telling the current location. Instead, The Chorus shows up throughout the film, addressing the audience just like the original play, but in the same space as the film. He doesn’t exist as a disembodied voice, or narrator telling the audience from a separate space, but rather travels with the plot, yet remaining magically unseen by the other characters. This version of the Chorus takes upon the role of a guide for the audience, easily enthralled by Derek Jacobi’s commanding voice. Not only does this provide the audience with the same exposition as a theatre audience, but it also enables the film to remain closer to the original text.
The character of Falstaff is enhanced on screen as well. In the text of the play, he is only mentioned and not shown, since they mention that the character has passed away. Branagh chooses instead to show Falstaff, by having Nym, Pistol and Bardolph remember him through flashback. While no such scene exists in the play, Branagh takes these scenes from Henry IV, which helps to blend the scene into the film. To any viewer not familiar with the original play, it’s almost impossible to tell that the scene was added in. This further helps the viewer to understand the relationship between Nym/Pistol/Bardolph and Henry. This helps to carry the severity of Henry’s decision to hang Bardolph for theft. Without establishing this relationship, Bardolph’s execution simply seems like a way to tie up the side plot of the three, but Branagh’s decision helps to give this scene the importance it deserves.
Branagh’s adaptation is not without weakness, however. The viewer’s introduction to Katherine takes the brunt of this criticism. Even within the play, this scene feels unnecessary. While it may serve as an introduction to the character of Katherine, we don’t really discover anything about her that seems to be important. She struggles with English in the scene, but we could easily figure this out in the final scene in which her and King Henry meet. Her handmaiden speaks in a cartoonishly high pitched voice and it ruins the believability of the scene. While it would be more or less “proper’ to include the scene out of respect to the original material, Branagh’s usage of content from Henry IV shows that he’s willing to break this rule, so there’s really no excuse to include this scene.
While the above mentioned scene with Katherine is weak, Emma Thompson’s portrayal is commendable, and the entire film is not completely ruined by the inclusion of the scene. The strength the rest of the cast more than picks up the slack, making Henry V the standard for stage-to-screen adaptations.