Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is an ambitious film. Ambitious in that it takes one of the best known and well loved of Shakespeare's plays—already made into an acclaimed film by another great English actor—and seeks to use the film's story to convey a message of the horrors of war and the moral and practical burdens of kingship and government. Compressing into five acts the actions of five years, Shakespeare wrote a play that would run approximately two and one-half hours in length, without intermission. Branagh, in editing the text, brings the film to just over two hours, exactly 138 minutes. To move the film along, he makes effective use of two editing techniques, the cut and the dissolve. His pacing gives a sense of the historical time span, while at the same time keeping the audience actively involved in the narrative and characters.
The plot of Henry V is complicated by Shakespeare's predilection for writing for a score of characters, all with their own understanding of the events, and all with clearly identified interests and philosophies. The bare bones of the matter is historically famous. Since the reign of Edward I, England's monarchs had been seeking the throne of France on the basis of their connection through the female line. France countered their argument with Salic Law, which forbade the issue of any female assuming the throne. Henry, upon assuming the throne of his father, invaded France in 1415, and, after besieging Harfleur, fought the battle of Agincourt. Taking literary liberty, Shakespeare leaves that as the final, decisive battle, ignoring the fact that Henry had to conquer Rouen two years later before he was able to bring the French to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Troyes, signed in 1420, marked the end of hostilities (for a time, at least) as Henry married Katherine, the daughter of Charles VI of France, and their issue was to rule both France and England.
Shakespeare adds to that basic outline the early companions of Henry—Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, the Boy and Mistress Quickly—as well as various military figures, most notably the Welsh Captain Fluellen. Included in the personnel are Charles VI (known as the French King) and his advisors, the Dauphin, the Constable of France, the Dukes of Burgundy and Orleans and the Grandpre. There are also the nobles of England—the Dukes of Gloucester, York and Bedford, the Earl of Essex—and the traitorous Scroop, Grey and Cambridge. Each of these has a story to tell. Finally, there is the Chorus who—while supposedly providing objective third-person narration—has its own viewpoint. All of these characters are included in Branagh's film, and given great vitality.
The message the film coveys is clear: the unyielding horror of war, no matter what the cause and its justness. This theme is best developed in the the latter half of the campaign, as Henry's army moves from Harfleur to Calais, where it is ravaged by sickness and foul weather. The battle at Agincourt fills the screen with images of death and pain: mental, emotional and physical. There is another theme, however, more subtle and often overlooked, and that is difficulties of kingship and, by extension, government. Henry, in both the play and the film, must reconcile the heritage of his murderous father with his own dreams and ambitions. In the famed scene where the king walks the camp on the eve of Agincourt, the responsibilities of a king are debated, but not totally resolved. All this Branagh adds to the mix.
What would seem a long film, what with its narrative expanse and dense text, actually goes by quite quickly. The audience, at worst, feels that the film is exactly 138 minutes long. In actuality, the time passes by almost unnoticed, so skillful is Branagh in his pacing. This pacing, as noted above, relies on the deft editing of the scenes, as well as the talents of the actors and their director. Almost all movement from shot to shot is done by the use of cuts, the only exceptions are eight dissolves and one wipe where the screen becomes black.
The cuts are fairly basic, but quite effective. They are either a simple cut, a jump-cut or an intercut. The last two, however, are not extensively used. Branagh films the action much like a play in that each scene is carried out as it was written, whole and complete. Only after the action is completed does the camera move the audience to a new venue. The only exceptions to this rule are the use of flashbacks, which occur three times in the film. Two are used to denote Henry's relationship with the late Falstaff and his followers—Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, the Boy and Mistress Quickly— while the other is reserved for the final scene, the Treaty of Troyes, where both Henry and the French King recall their dead. The first two flashb'acks are actually new scenes to the audience, the third is a montage of faces and images that dissolve one into the other before the camera returns to the action.
The dissolves are so infrequent and specific that they are easily noticed. The first occurs as Mistress Quickly bids her loved ones farewell as they head to the wars. The camera is still on her face, but then the image dissolves to show an antique map, with the site of Rouen. The map dissolves into the face of the worried French...
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