A little touch of Branagh: Henry V
By Mireia Aragay
Links and Letters, Vol.6 (1999)
Abstract: Taking as a starting point the illuminating similarity between the critical reception of Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V (1989) and the liberal humanist reading of the Shakespearean play-text, this article highlights a series of significant stress-points in the play-text and looks at the way they are dealt with in the Branagh film. It is claimed that the film is riven by one central contradiction: namely, that between a political (critical, detached) and a personal (emotional) representation of the action. Ultimately, it is argued that the film’s promotion of the spectator’s identification with the psychology of power makes of Branagh’s Henry a leader for our politically muddled times.
Introduction: Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V, released in 1989, was greeted with wide critical acclaim of a kind which repays close attention. The film, as is well known, was inspired by a 1984 RSC production directed by Adrian Noble, where Branagh also played the leading role. A paradigmatic reaction to that production, of a kind that was reproduced five years later in the film’s reception, was that of the theatre critic of the Daily Mail, Jack Tinker, who, after describing the «young Mr Kenneth Branagh» as a «patriotic poet», reflects:
Offhand I can’t remember a day when it seemed so marvellous or mad to be English. Suddenly the chronic inconvenience of London’s transport strike and the continuing horrors of the mining dispute were put into the merciful perspective of history […] here at Stratford, with a young, brave and poetic Henry bridging the centuries between by reminding us of the unlikely spirit which won Agincourt […] (On hearing) Harry’s Harfleur spirit […] it did not, after all, seem improbable that there are still good reasons to be in England now that April’s almost here.
In short, both the 1984 RSC production of the play and Branagh’s 1989 film tapped into an emotion of patriotism as well as into a deep nostalgia for an imagined unity of the nation, anchored in the past (i.e. the spirit of Harfleur and Agincourt), which serve as consolation for the conflicts, divisions and negations of the present (i.e. the transport strike and the mining dispute).