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.

Film Diary – Act 5 Scene 2 (Jasmine Koonar)

While watching Branagh’s film “Hamlet,” I found the overall film to be quite enjoyable. There were many scenes that caused me to see Shakespeare’s script in a new light. Throughout this course, I have become more and more impressed with Kenneth Branagh’s work involving Shakespeare. It has definitely sprung an interest for me in his work, and I will probably continue to explore more of Kenneth Branagh’s career after the course ends.

In the film, Kate Winslet’s portrayal of Ophelia is one of a chilling and disturbing performance. Her slow decline throughout the movie was very obvious. In some of her final scenes when she is strapped in a straight jacket, it really dramatizes Ophelia’s insanity unlike in the play. Ophelia’s skin is very pale and her voice trembles, her portrayal still sends shivers down my spine.

If we analyze Act 5 Scene 2 in the film, we may see some distinctions in how the movie chose to interpret the play. I found that the play was quite blunt when the king dies. That one moment the Queen is dead then suddenly Hamlet is killing the king. However in the film, the scene is quite dramatic with many things going on at once to catch the audience’s attention. As Hamlet states “Then, venom, to thy work!” (5.2.296), He throws the sword from across the room to hit the King, then swings the chandelier onto him to trap him. This was almost humourous in how unrealistic his aim would be. Very dramatic. Very unrealistic in my opinion. Altogether, Branagh’s performance was once again magnificent and I will be looking forward to the next Branagh film to watch in the near future.



Aja Elemans: Film Diary Act 5, Scene 1

Other than the necessary snack and bathroom breaks, Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) is actually quite an easy and enjoyable watch. It is clear that Branagh and all the actors he chose understand the lines or at least how they should be expressed as per this rendition. The acting is great and the story is very well presented. Because Branagh chose only to lightly modify Shakespeare’s original script, it is very easy to follow along should you have the text in front of you. It is by this practice that I noticed a repetition of references to Greek and Roman mythology.

Ossa, Hercules? Did the average person know what these were? Do they now?

Ossa, Hercules? Did the average person know what these were? Do they now?

In Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 he makes reference to Niobe and Hercules. I took note and considered this a way of demonstrating Hamlet’s education. This reference of Hercules is to demonstrate how far from a father Polonius is to Hamlet. Without knowing who Hercules is or what he represents, the idea being portrayed is clear in the comparison and delivery of the line.

Later in Act 5, Scene 1, Hamlet makes reference to Alexander the Great, Caesar and again Hercules. The note in Robert Miola’s Norton edition to this second Hercules reference (Let Hercules himself do what he may, l.271) is that it could be a jab at Laertes. It is here that I question who in Shakespeare’s original audiences would be getting these references.

Without the script, there is no way I would have caught the repetition in the first place and without a close reading would I be understanding the references. So who exactly was he writing them for?

Yup… I snapped my movie watching and the first moment we see Hamlet really losing his mind.


Hamlet’s dynamic potential: an Act III Scene 1 comparison

Act III Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy followed by dialogue between Hamlet and Ophelia. The scene portrays Hamlet’s mental state as well as the status of his relationship with Ophelia. Film adaptations of Hamlet directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier (1948), Franco Zeffirelli (1990), and Kenneth Branagh (1996) take unique liberties with interpretation of the scene. The resulting effect is three versions of the same scene that feel quite different.

The most noticeable difference between the different film adaptations is the arrangement of the scene. Both Olivier and Zeffirelli reorder the scene so that Hamlet first speaks to Ophelia and then enters his soliloquy. This effectively allows the soliloquy to function as a reaction to his interaction with Ophelia. Additionally this rearrangement stresses Hamlet’s isolation by showing his physical retreat to solitude. On the other hand, Branagh follows the original order of the text. Ophelia is an interruption of Hamlet’s deep contemplation rather the initiation of it.

Hamlet’s speaks to Ophelia with cruel and biting words. However, Oliver, Zeffirelli, and Branagh repurpose the words to add complexity and ulterior motives to the scene. Likewise, the treatment of each soliloquy creates unique meaning.

Olivier interprets Hamlet’s cruelty towards Ophelia as an act of protection. He speaks “I did love you once” in an honest and remorseful tone. It comes across as a confession before he deliberately shifts to his “get thee to a nunnery” speech. This speech full of cruel words is neutralized by a simple gesture; Hamlet stops and gently takes a piece of Ophelia’s hair in his hand as he passes her crying on the stairs. This single tender moment breaks the façade of cruelty that Hamlet erects when he steps forward and shifts into his “get thee to a nunnery” speech. The simple performance choice suggests Hamlet is trying to protect an innocent Ophelia from the evil of men rather than curse her.

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Hamlet then secludes himself to the top of a tower for his soliloquy. The camera movement connects Ophelia’s crying form to Hamlet’s soliloquy by panning over the staircase connecting the settings. This suggests that Hamlet’s deliberate cruelty to Ophelia has spurred on his suicidal contemplation of life. Background music is used by Olivier to set the mood and for emphasis. The music speeds up as the camera climbs the stairs building anticipation for the coming speech and then slows as the speech begins. The music rises again at “perchance to dream” marking a shift in Hamlet. He shortly after drops the dagger coming out of his daze and returning to his indecisive nature.


Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is less loving towards Ophelia. The dark, grey setting creates a cold and harsh atmosphere for the scene. Hamlet initially intends to pass by ignoring Ophelia’s presence before she calls out to him. His displeasure with her is evident by this creative choice. He speaks the line “I did love you once” as though he cannot believe it for her finally sees her for what she is. The harsh and loud tones emphasize anger that matches the cruelty of his words.

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During the soliloquy Zeffirelli creates a dark mood by placing Hamlet inside a crypt with low lighting where he is literally surrounded by death. The absolute silence in the crypt stresses Hamlet’s physical isolation. Similar to Olivier, Zeffirelli creates a shift in tone at the line “perchance to dream.” Uniquely however, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet does not have a weapon. This suggests Hamlet’s fault of indecision and lack of action because he does not even have a means of execution.

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Branagh’s portrayal of Hamlet and Ophelia is the most dynamic. Branagh captures Hamlet’s movement through an array of raw emotion as he takes in Ophelia’s words. When Hamlet and Ophelia first see each other, happy music and warm light create a light, triumphant mood that showcases their deep love. The warmth and colour of this moment drastically contrast Olivier’s black and white and Zeffirelli’s dark scenes. The statement “I did love you once” is spoken with tears in his eyes that capture Hamlet’s love. When Ophelia’s returns the tokens Hamlet shows his feelings of betrayal and all of his emotions shift as he grapples at understanding. As Hamlet’s anger rises, the music shifts to match it. This interpretation suggests that with deep love comes the ability to hurt each other deeply.

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Branagh’s Hamlet speaks his soliloquy steadily into a mirror. Mirrors are often used to suggest self-reflection and clarity. It is ironic Branagh’s emotionally susceptible Hamlet is associated with an item of reflection and clarity. In contrast to Olivier’s and Zeffirelli’s films, Branagh Hamlet does not shift from suicidal to contemplative at the line “perchance to dream.” Instead he draws his dagger after this line giving the end of the speech a more dangerous meaning than the other versions. Hamlet’s voice also is more even in Branagh’s interpretation. This suggests that his musings run in circles keeping him in the same spot.


Act III scene 1 of Hamlet is given different meanings by Olivier, Zeffirelli, and Branagh. Each interpretation has key elements separating it from the other two. These elements include text arrangement, camera movement, gestures, speaking tone, setting, music, and props. The result is characterization of Hamlet. Olivier’s Hamlet is depressing and loving, Zeffirelli’s is angry and hopeless, and Branagh’s is emotional and expressive. No one version of Hamlet is more correct or better than the others. That said I find the emotion in Branagh’s portrayal undeniably enticing. His Hamlet is as unpredictable and emotional messy as I personally imagined from the text.

Aspen Kozak