Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. I feel as though the film, through methods unavailable in a theatrical performance, was able to produce more subtleties and evoke emotion that a live stage performance would not be able to. These factors, I believe make the film not only an effective interpretation of the text, but also a more palatable version at that.
I found the way in which the Chorus (played by Derek Jacobi) is presented in this adaptation is very intriguing, particularly in the prologue. The Chorus – no doubt through the text itself – is supposed to break the fourth wall, but the prologue is removed completely from the world that the narrative takes place within. This first scene is placed on a movie set, with cameras and other equipment in full view of the audience, so as to give the impression that the Chorus is, while later appearing in the actual scenes of the narrative, a type of modern-day tour guide through the jungle that is medieval Europe.
The Chorus is also seen wearing modern clothes, while all the other players are seen to be wearing clothes appropriate to the medieval period of the narrative. This helps once again show the Chorus as a separate entity, our tour guide through the film. It seems as though Branagh has the Chorus conducting a type of documentary, which to me appears quite unique in a beneficial way, as it gives a sense of realness to the history.
Act 1 Scene 1 as it is performed in the film, allows the audience to experience the dialogue between the two Bishops in a way that a stage performance in a theatre could not. The shadowy lighting and the camera angles allow for close up and extreme close up shots to give a feeling of intimacy in the conversation between the two men. It allows for us to see the expressions of scheming and secrecy on the faces of the Bishops.
This scene however not only allows the audience to feel these effects through camera angles, but through the dialogue itself as well. The two Bishops through this scene speak very quietly, sometimes even whispering. This effectively creates a feeling that this conversation is surreptitious in nature. In a theatre environment, these techniques would not be able to be employed, and I believe that their use in this film are effective and beneficial in the portrayal of Shakespeare’s text.
Another factor that helps drive along the narrative within the film is Branagh’s use of flashbacks to Henry V’s past. One in particular is the flashback to a conversation between Sir John Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane) and Henry (Branagh) before he became king. “No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” This dialogue appears nowhere in the original text of this play, but is drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4). These flashbacks, while from a different play, allow the audience to see into the past life of Henry, an effect that the original text does not necessarily provide. Branagh uses this as a tool to portray a conflicted Henry, who is turning his back on his former life. It also shows how his ascension to the position of king and the abandoning of his old friends affected them as well.
Branagh’s 1989 adaptation appears to be an effective, fluid, evocative interpretation of Shakespeare’s work. The film allows for an intimate view of the characters, as Branagh’s use of closeups and extreme closeups allow us to see more emotion and characteristics of the players, which is not an option in a theatrical performance. His use of the Chorus as a modern tour guide, leading us into and through the medieval period bridges a gap between our two eras, allowing us to see the film as a type of documentary. Finally, Branagh’s use of material from Henry IV Part 1 to show flashbacks to Henry’s past life allow the audience to see his emotional ties to those from his past and the conflict that arises not only within himself, but his old friends, which gives a more humanized, emotional interpretation of the text.