For the second installment of “Shakespeare November”, View from Across the Pond has decided to look at the screen adaptations of two of the most prolific Shakespearean performers of the 20th Century and two of the most prolific directors to ever put Shakespeare on film: Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Kenneth Branagh. While I do want to preface that both of these versions are completely different from one another, I thought these reviews would make an interesting comparison regarding different Shakespeare adaptations and how Branagh and Olivier direct and perform. Without further ado, here is round 1 of Branagh vs. Olivier!
The first film that each of these two gentlemen directed in (and also starred in) “Henry V” is perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare’s History plays. The story concerns how Henry attempts to conquer lands in France during the Hundred Years War and how he leads his men in battle. Even though the story is the same, the way that Branagh and Olivier go about telling the story are completely different from one another. To start first, lets look at Olivier’s “Henry V”.
Olivier’s “Henry V” features a very meta opening. For one, the movie is presented as though the audience is watching a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” at the Globe Theatre in the year 1601. The actors playing the audience react to the mistakes on stage thereby making the film’s audience further realize that they are watching a play. After this brief beginning where the audience is watching a play
the scene shifts to where Henry is departing from Southampton and it feels like a normal movie until the final scene where the action returns to the Globe Theater.
Some modern audiences have disparaged this extremely self-referential opening, I have to say I found the opening very interesting. It is interesting choice because it shows the origins of Shakespeare and how “Henry V” is entwined into the English identity of theater and drama. This allusion to “Englishness” is not surprising considering that this version of “Henry V” was intended as a morale booster to the English people during World War II. As a consequence, this version of Henry is never prone to faults or lapses of judgement as he is in the play; instead, he is constantly heroic and never undergoes any growth as a character, but is instead a big English cheerleader. This becomes a problem because there is no inherent investment in the character of Henry. Additionally, the French are portrayed not as calculating or menacing but as knaves and idiots, thereby creating a tension-less climax during the pivotal Agincourt scene.
While understanding that this is intended to be a morale piece, I thought that Olivier’s “Henry V” could have included more of Henry’s faults and an emotional arc to the characters instead of making Henry completely pure. I also thought that there were several scenes that showed Olivier’s lack of directing, especially regarding scenes that were inside and felt as though the audience was watching a play.
Even though Olivier’s “Henry V” can show a lack of cinematic polish, the same cannot be said for Branagh’s “Henry V”. From the meta opening by Derek Jacobi as the Chorus (obviously inspired by Olivier), the sets, costumes, and film score, Branagh understands the power of film and how you do not need to film it like a play in order to make Shakespeare’s language effective. This creates a richer cinematic experience and one that creates a more emotional pull with the audience.
Branagh’s Henry is also greater than Olivier’s. In the beginning Henry is Machiavellian and calculating, showing more interest in obtaining his French lands than in the sacrifices in his men. He shows no remorse in Falstaff’s death and no qualms about hanging his men in order to achieve goals. However, after a night with his men in disguise, Henry realizes how much they have sacrificed and that they really are his brothers. This idea of sacrifice comes to a head during the glorious “St. Crispin’s Day” speech where Henry claims that he fights for his men, not for himself. This speech is done wonderfully and the music score (by first time composer Patrick Doyle) accentuates this feeling.
Overall I would say that while Olivier’s “Henry V” is rousing, ultimately it lacks in certain areas that could use more emotional triumph. Branagh’s “Henry V” restores this emotional triumph and makes it a much full-filling film going experience. Vote below or add in the comments which one you prefer readers!
Fun Fact: Yes, that is Christian Bale as the boy in Branagh’s “Henry V”. Also, Winston Churchill was the one who commissioned Olivier to do “Henry V”.
Olivier’s “Henry V”: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Branagh’s “Henry V”: 4 out of 4 stars