Over the years, many famous actors have made their mark by elevating the great dramas of William Shakespeare into the contemporary lexicon. The list of said thesps includes legends like Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, but in the modern context, no one actor is so closely associated with the works of the Bard than the great Kenneth Branagh. Though he may work mostly as a blockbuster director these days (Thor, Jack Ryan), twenty years ago Branagh was considered the pre-eminent Shakespearian actor for his ability to transform four-hundred-year-old plays into thrilling spectacles without resorting to shock tactics, radical revisionism, or reductive dumb-downing. With that it mind, one of his adaptations in particular transcends the medium and perfectly interpolates Shakespeare’s work in a timelessly powerful fashion: Branagh’s superb 1989 version of Henry V.
Both directing and starring in the film, Branagh brilliantly realizes the iconic part of King Henry V of England, chronicling his rise to power from a naive young man to a powerful monarch, seizing the fates in war-torn Europe. As Henry navigates the treachery of his court, he finds himself at odds with Charles VI (Paul Scofield), the King of France, and his pompous goon the Dauphin (Michael Maloney). When Henry discovers three traitors embedded within his kingdom, he begins to directly antagonize the French, threatening to unite the crowns, which eventually leads to an all-out declaration of war. Running concurrent to this action and intrigue is a moving forbidden-love story with Katharine, Charles VI’s daughter (Branagh’s then wife, Emma Thompson).
Finally, the drama boils over at the climactic battle of Agincourt, a viscerally staged confrontation that matches the historical accuracy of Gettysburg with the grim valor of Gladiator, while simultaneously outdoing both films due to the tremendous performance at its core. The fulcrum of the film is Branagh’s gut wrenching version of the famed “St. Crispin’s Day” speech—an emotional monologue following Agincourt that’s so rousing it’ll be sure to have you on the edge of your seat if not out of it.
Overall, even if you’re not a big Shakespeare buff, this film is a good-old-fashioned piece of high drama, with great acting, awesome set-design, and thrilling battles. It’s worth noting that “Henry V” was once actually a relatively minor play in the Bard’s canon, but the sheer quality of this movie moved it up in the ranks, making it one of his most-performed works. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, pick up Henry V on Blu-Ray.