Mark Borissov: Film Review | Henry V

Film and theater are alike in many ways. If it wasn’t for the popularity of theater, we would probably not have the innovative storytelling power of film we do today. However, there are many differences between the two mediums: there are things audiences needs to be told during plays in order to understand what can easily just be shown in film, and there are qualities of theater that film cannot capture with a camera. It’s easiest to see the disparities between film and theater in a film adaptation of a play. In film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work, for instance, directors have to make choices in regards to what to keep and what to omit from the original texts, as well as what stylistic choices they themselves what to add in order to appeal to the film audience, all while in the constraints of film as a medium. Kenneth Branagh makes many of these choices in his film adaption of Shakespeare’s Henry V. I shall discuss these choices, and the differences between the original play and Branagh’s film version, specifically viewing and reading into act i scene ii.

Branagh’s act i scene ii starts right after the credits, after his own cinematic interpretation of the prologue, and his short conversation between Canterbury and Ely. The scene begins with a shot of a grand door opening, and Branagh as King Henry walking through it, spliced with a shot of his men standing around, only to order themselves onto either side of the screen as they see their king arrive, all while tense up-tempo music plays. These two shots introducing the king and his men is used to separate the two, having the king appear as a sovereign, alone, separate from all other men, and the men as servants of his majesty. As the king continues through the hall, he passes the faces of his men, introducing their characters. Finally, as the king sits in his throne, the music stops and he speaks for the first time: “Where is my gracious Lord of Canterbury?”

In order to fit the contents of the play into the medium of film, and at the same time retains its audience’s attention, Branagh cuts much of the original text in his adaptation. This cutting not only removes expository information Branagh deems less important, it also removes some of the lyrical elements of Shakespeare’s text, making the dialog more conversational, and therefore more easily understood by a contemporary audience. An example of the text being cut in order to get rid of unimportant exposition would be after King Henry asks for the Lord of Canterbury. In the original text Exeter and Westmoreland actually answer Henry, but in the film adaptation Branagh skips this dialog to instead have Canterbury arrive immediately, almost as if he was summoned. Thinking about it, this all seems rather nonsensical, a king asking a question without anyone answering, only to have the person he is looking for miraculously appear. However, this cutting of dialog allows Branagh to maintain the rhythm and tone of his scene, making the transition between Henry asking for Lord Canterbury and him actually arriving so smooth that the viewer doesn’t notice anything awkward about it. An example of Branagh removing text to retain his audience’s attention, and assist in their understanding of the play, would be Lord Canterbury’s long speech about salique law. Being an intentionally long and convoluted passage, Branagh cuts much of this text’s exposition, while at the same time retaining enough of it to maintain the original intent of the text. Pausing before the sarcastic “so that, as clear as is the summer’s sun” line, and cutting to laughter around the room, Branagh emphasizes that the barrage or names and information is intended to be confusing.

This scene of Branagh’s raises the question; is wrong for Branagh to omit so much of the original text, but include a minute-long sequence of himself walking through a hall? I would argue that he makes the right decision, for this sequence shows much of King Henry’s character that the stripped down script only skims over. It shows a king who’s isolated in his God like power, his circumstance being bestowed by God himself. A king whose men’s passing faces influence his own judgement. Although it’s a shame to miss some of Shakespeare’s beautiful language, Branagh’s ability to develop something like character without any dialog using his own stylistic choices is what separates the capabilities of film from theater.

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