Sunday, I wrote the review of Olivier’s Henry V. I watched Branagh’s version that night. I watched a while ago but I wanted to have it fresh in my mind especially because I would be contrasting it to Olivier’s film.
When Branagh’s movie came out in 1989 it made him a star. He was a young dynamic character and the world wanted to believe in heroes again. He was married at the time to Emma Thompson and she played Katherine to his Henry. They were seen as an exciting couple in Hollywood circles and there was great interest in their films together. Putting all that aside, people were ready to take a fresh look at Shakespeare. Branagh adapted the play for the screen and directed himself in the lead. Branagh was young enough and active enough to make King Harry believable. The movie was a critical success.
Interestingly, Branagh’s Henry V left in some of the smaller incidents that Olivier omitted. The three conspirators who planned to assassinate Henry on behalf of the French are duly exposed and condemned. The hanging of Bardolph, one of Prince Harry’s former companions is a stark reminder that King Henry is a changed man.
But the major thrust of the film of course runs in the same vein as Olivier’s. And yet there are clear differences in tone and emphasis. Despite the theme of war Olivier’s play is the more light hearted and optimistic of the two by far. A good point of comparison is the St Crispin’s Day speech. When Olivier gives the speech, he exudes confidence and a controlled enthusiasm. But when Branagh speaks he impresses on the audience the sense of passion and energy he feels. It’s a rush of adrenaline that he captures in words.
And the action of the play mirrors this same difference. Olivier’s cinema is typical of what the 1940s would do to portray the late middle ages. It reminds you of how Hollywood would give us Robin Hood or Ivanhoe. It was a sunlit world of grassy fields and picturesque castles with banners flapping in the breeze high above the fields. Branagh gives us explosions, fire, battles in the dead of night and lots and lots of mud. Mud on the ground, mud on the soldiers and mud on the King. And he keeps some of the lines on the war that Olivier left out. When the English besiege the city of Harfleur, Henry harangues the town elders with the horrors that resisting the besiegers would entail if they failed to surrender in advance. He mentions rape, plunder and the vicious destruction of human life from the youngest infant to the oldest inhabitants. So, we can see that Branagh has made the more accurate version of the play. He’s left all the warts in plain sight.
Now in addition to the grittier nature of Branagh’s production it should be said that his handling of the romance between Henry and Katherine is also more naturalistic. Branagh has an earthier, more openly comical approach to Henry attempting to woo Katherine in terribly halting French. Olivier’s approach is calmer and more restrained. So, all in all let’s call Olivier’s a more formal and austere approach to the story and Branagh’s a more naturalistic and emotional version.
How do they compare? In my opinion they are both excellent films. And they have different strengths. I watch the Olivier version when I want to enjoy Olivier’s language. He is the gold standard, in my book, for what Shakespeare’s dialog should sound like. No one else makes the text sound real the way he does.
But if I want to see the story of the war, I will watch Branagh’s version. Branagh and his excellent cast bring the war to life. By the end of the battle of Agincourt you can feel the exhaustion that the English feel as they struggle to bury their dead. Even the miraculous victory they’ve won is almost beyond their strength to grasp. Branagh has done a very fine job of making a Henry V that is faithful to the text and conveys the reality of a King going to war in the Hundred Years War.