Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Henry V

One of the strange things about this project is that I seem to introducing important people in their worst moment. I've mentioned previously how Pixar was introduced with their worst moment, but now we've got Henry V, which features two names seen previously, and not in a great light. The film was made by and stars Laurence Olivier, whose first appearance here was in the 49th Parallel, where he was the most annoying character in the world. It's also an adaptation of Shakespeare, who previously showed up in a really ridiculous adaptation of MacBeth. Here's a much better showcase for both men.

Henry V is about Henry V, if the title wasn't obvious already. He is the king who was in charge in the Battle of Agincourt, wherein the British came from a disadvantage in numbers to kick some serious ass. It's like 300, if it was real and, you know, not shit. Anyway, given that this was war time, and the British could use a morale boost, it seemed like a good idea to remind everyone of a massive victory they once had.

Being Shakespeare, as one might expect, the story is quite good. The strongest moments, however, have little to do with Henry's bravado but instead his quiet contemplation and uncertainty. The best scene overall is one where Henry goes among his men the night before battle. The uncertainty among the men and the mixture of anticipation and dread is deftly handled. As the king confronts what his subject thinks of him, it shows a certain vulnerability and uncertainties in his own character, and keeps him likable and more than just a man with big speeches and a bigger sword. Another great scene is at the end, where Henry tries to woo Princess Katherine (Renee Asherson). Olivier plays on his uncertainty and unfamiliarity with the situation almost as much as Shakespeare does in the play, giving a character played as a hero for two hours some degree of humility, reducing him to a scared teenager in front of a pretty girl. It's a genius moment, and ensures the character never gets too big.

So it should be noted that this is actually a very odd and fairly experimental approach to filmmaking. In the beginning, it seems like a documentary on theatre production, albeit in the 1600s. It begins in the Globe Theatre, complete with audience, characters changing costume behind the scenes, and even a freaking laugh track. It's a bizarre way to begin a film, and completely unexpected. As the film progresses and the drama heightens, the scene gradually gets more realistic and the rest of the theatre fades away steadily. Eventually, we get to the innovative yet imperfect final battle, which is purely on location, before ending in the theatre yet again.

It's a neat trick to use, since it sums up what good theatre can do. As you get into the characters and the story, one begins to feel their imagination take over, and the show achieves a heightened reality. The film is a representation of how good theatre can take hold of an audience. It becomes the most real as the tension gets highest, and comes down as we prepare to leave it behind.

It isn't entirely perfect - the battle scene is quite chaotic, and it becomes clear something like that had never been filmed so they weren't sure what they were doing - but every imperfection brings with it an interesting and influential move - in that same battle scene, there's a cloud of arrows, something seen in every film with archers seen since. Olivier clearly hasn't directed a film before, and uses that inexperience to experiment and try different approaches to making film. He is unencumbered by experience, which leads to many interesting ideas which more established people might feel were a bit too, well, crazy to work. Here, most of the time, they do, and it's quite fascinating to watch.

I've said it before, but Shakespeare needs to be performed for people to really understand it. This adaptation, of the ones I've seen, is one of the better ones, using gimmicks to get past the slower parts and getting to the core of why the play is still interesting. Plus, it was a morale boost when Britain needed it most, there's nothing wrong with that.


  1. Well 300 *kind of* happened, though clearly not with Scottish Spartans yelling about Sparta and Sparta'ing the non-Spartans right off of Spartan in a ridiculously slow-motion action film depicting Sparta at its Spartiest, though a force of 300 Spartans, according to history, did hold down the fort against millions of Persians in Thermopylae. Either way, now I'm really interested in this Henry V, and I wouldn't have even thought twice about it otherwise!

  2. It was sort of a subtle double diss, since 300 diverged so far from the source battle and was such a glossy CGI mess that it didn't really have much to do with reality.