Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Henry V (1989)
Studio Line: MGM

He ruled a massive empire…and fought a mighty war! Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson and Judi Dench star in this heroic, action-packed epic based on the timeless play by William Shakespeare. "Magnificent, passionate and steeped in powerful emotion" (The Washington Post), Henry V is a "stunning" (Leonard Maltin) Oscar-nominated adventure that takes its place amongst the greatest war films of all time.

Having recently been crowned King of England, Henry (Branagh) commands a massive invasion to assert what he believes is his legal right to the throne of France. But a mighty army stands in his way…and the young monarch must rely on untestes reserved of courage and cunning as the persoally lead his outnumbered forces into a desperate battle for the honor and glory of the British Empire.

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Simon Shepherd, James Larkin, Brian Blessed, James Simmons, Charles Kay
Academy Awards: Won for Best Costume Design. Nominated for Best Director, Best Actor-Kenneth Branagh, 1990.
Box Office: Gross: $10.16 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 36 chapters; rated PG-13; 138 min.; $19.98; 7/18/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; Collectible Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | Book - William Shakespeare

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B-/D

Every so often, films try to make Shakespeare more "accessible" to modern audiences. The most unusual example of this was also the most successful: 1998's Shakespeare In Love, which presented a fictitious romantic tale about Billy himself, raked in big bucks and won boohoogles of Academy Awards.

Most other attempts simply try to recast his work in a somewhat different light. Some of these go for very different interpretations, such as the recent film of Hamlet or the 1996 edition of Romeo + Juliet. However, most stick more closely to the original but simply broaden the horizons with extra cinematic flair.

That is the category into which Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version of Henry V falls. Branagh now stands as today's most famous interpreter of Shakesie; in fact, of the nine films he's directed, four have been adaptations of Shakespeare plays, while one other - In the Bleak Midwinter - apparently concerns the production of one of these works.

Although Branagh loves to return that well, he never has been able to match the success he encountered with Henry V, his first adaptation of Shakespeare - and his first directorial effort, as well. Critics gave it fine notices, it grabbed Oscar nominations for Branagh as both director and actor, and audiences - well, they didn't exactly flock to it, but HV did pretty nicely for that sort of film.

Certainly it reached an audience that usually skipped Shakespearean works. Even a low-brow like myself gave it a gander when it hit home video, though I don't recall being immensely impressed with it. One problem with adaptation of Shakespeare stems from the fact I - and probably others - always expect it to be the most amazing thing ever; Will has such a stellar reputation that those of us who aren't quite "into" him always feel moderately disappointed.

Maybe I'll always remain one of those folks who just don't get it. Frankly, Shakespeare never did much for me, and Henry V didn't do much to change my feelings. That said, Branagh does produce a strong adaptation of the play. Although the film displays some of the qualities that usually put people off of Shakespeare - the difficult-to-understand speech, the overwrought performances - but Branagh makes the story visceral and exciting enough to eventually overwhelm most of the nay-sayers.

That said, the first section of the film was tough-going for me. I had great difficulty getting used to the combination of accents and the period language. At the risk of sounding like a moron, it took a while before I was able to pick up on any nuances in the performances or the dialogue because I could do no more than hold on for dear life; I had to derive most of my understanding of the story from context and performance cues than from the actual lines. This changed slowly and I gradually was more adept in this regard - I was so excited when I caught the play on the word "carnation" in a bar scene! - but I'd be a liar if I didn't say that the language remained a barrier throughout the film; however, I definitely got better, which gives hope to all, and the film's concluding segments actually seemed very easy for me to understand, although I don't know if that's because of my increased comprehension or if those parts simply used more concrete language. (By the way, MGM, English subtitles would have been a big help; the DVD features closed captioning, but I find DVD subtitles to be much more effective and less intrusive.)

In any case, the second half of HV largely depends less on dialogue because it contains most of the juicy battle scenes. Frankly, it's too bad the movie progresses in the order it does since the opening segments are rife with expository text; obviously this was necessary, but I couldn't help but wish that the dialogue-heavy parts came when I felt more comfortable with the language.

As long as you can hang on until the fights start, you'll be in good shape, and the rest of the film will pass by much more pleasantly. Perhaps I feel this way just because I'm a lowest-common--denominator kind of guy who likes his killin' and his bashin', but I really think the battles are the heart of Henry V; the rest is just an appetizer for those scenes, including the father of all inspirational addresses, Henry's "St. Crispin's Day" speech.

Branagh does a fine job of staging the battles, and it's in those scenes that we find a reason for the movie to exist. Prior to that, little difference existed between the filmed version of HV and the stage production. Personally, I don't see the point of creating movies that barely differ from the live performances; there needs to be some alteration that takes advantages of film as a medium, and Branagh does this during the fights. Clearly these could not take place on a stage, and he makes them stand out nicely.

As far as the performances themselves go, they largely seem good though they suffer from the over-emotiveness that often mars productions of Shakespeare. Maybe the grand language of much of the movie can't be performed in a less-than-theatrical manner, but I doubt that's it. Some more subtle work exists, such as Emma Thompson's Katherine, but then again, she doesn't have to spout the same kind of words as most of the others; her scenes are largely light and less formal and don't require the grandiloquence of the bigger productions.

Branagh shows some of the feverishness associated with stereotypical Shakespearean acting, but he's generally good. He lacks a great expansiveness of emotion, but he seems believable as the young king, and he definitely grows in the part; we can easily see how Henry develops throughout the film. As for the supporting cast, I can't honestly say anyone stood out, though Brian Blessed - who only became known to me after he voiced Boss Nass in The Phantom Menace - strikes a more medieval profile than most as Exeter; something about him fits the physical aspects of the role well.

Ultimately, I can't say that I really liked Henry V, but I thought it moved along well after some early slow spots, and I found myself involved in the story. Branagh stages the action well and makes the whole production pay off in the end.

The DVD:

Henry V appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. You'll note that I didn't include my usual "original aspect ratio" spiel, which occurs because HV hit screens with milder 1.66:1 dimensions; that's also the ratio used for Fox's old laserdisc release of the movie. Why the change? Dunno - maybe to make it fit 16X9 TVs without vertical bars on the sides? In any case, I can't say the extra cropping seemed noticeable to me; although I prefer films to appear in their original dimensions, I didn't notice any flaws attached to this loss of headroom.

I had a very difficult time judging the quality of HV's video presentation due to the style of photography. Especially during the first half of the film, the majority of the movie takes place indoors at night, which means lots of candles and fires to light the events. This results in some dimly-lit scenes, and those can be tough to resolve.

Overall, the DVD handles them pretty well, though the outdoor sequences look much better. Sharpness generally seems fairly crisp and accurate; some mild softness interferes with a few scenes, but most of the film appears well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges were not an issue, and I only noticed a few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV; almost uniformly they affected the clerics' uniforms at the start of the movie. Print flaws were mainly minor. Light grain pops up at times, and I also noticed occasional white spots and black speckles, but the image usually appeared nice and clean.

HV offers a very restricted palette for the most part; it's not exactly a tale that makes sense as a Technicolor extravaganza. As such, expect lots of dark grays, browns and blacks, all of which are reproduced well. On the occasions when reds or blues appear - almost entirely from costumes - they seem terrific. Maybe this came from the contrast between the mildly bright hues and the somber tons of the rest of the film, but these colors really looked rich and deep.

Shadow detail seemed acceptable but was inconsistent. Considering the darkness of the film's overall look, this was an important area, and the DVD doesn't always pass the test. Frankly, there's about a 50/50 split between scenes that appear appropriately opaque and those that are overly dark. The latter don't interfere with the image to a tremendous degree, but they seemed slightly problematic. Still, for a movie with so many segments that could potentially look terrible, Henry V generally provides a strong image.

Also inconsistent is the film's Dolby Surround soundtrack. The soundfield itself seemed stable and didn't vary much throughout the movie. The front channels provided some pretty good audio placement and an effective stereo image; sounds seemed appropriately located in the various channels and they merged together decently. The surrounds kicked in with some useful reinforcement of the front speakers, mainly with extra music or added clatter during the battles.

The quality of the audio is where we find the most inconsistencies. Dialogue generally sounds rather flat and rough; it seemed intelligible - accounting for that funky Shakespeare language, of course - but lacked warmth or great clarity. Both music and effects varied quite a lot. Good examples appear in the Battle of Agincourt scene. Compare the crisp clang and clash of the swords to the dull and muddy swish of the arrows; these demonstrate how different the effects can sound, even within the same scene. The music in this segment also fluctuates, from some very smooth and bright tones to flat and bland qualities. Bass sometimes appears solid and taut, but then it becomes thick and tinny. Overall, the audio for Henry V seems largely appropriate for a film from 1989, and the positive qualities outshine the problems, but the lack of consistency was slightly maddening.

Worse are the sparse supplemental features on this DVD. All we find are the film's theatrical trailer and a "collectible booklet." Although MGM have produced some great little text pieces in the past, the booklet for HV seems fairly ordinary; its two pages of jottings provide some good information about the movie, but many of their past offerings - such as A Fish Called Wanda or The Thomas Crown Affair - greatly outdo it. Momentary lapse or negative sign of things to come? Hopefully the former; MGM have enough current weaknesses in regard to their DVDs so they don't need to harm their strengths.

One wish: if MGM ever revisit this DVD and produce another edition, they'd be wise to add an audio commentary from Branagh. He produced an excellent track to accompany Dead Again, and I'd love to hear more from him. It'll probably not happen, but it'd be a very compelling experience if it did.

Although I don't think it's a great film, I did enjoy Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Henry V. I found the early spots to offer some rough going, but once I got over the hump, the movie offered some enjoyable and well-produced material. The DVD itself provides inconsistent but generally good picture and sound, but it lacked substantive supplements. Henry V is a film that should work well for knowledgeable Shakespeare fans and neophytes alike; those in the latter category may want to check it out if they'd like to learn more about the Bard's work.

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