A Darker Kind of King: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V
Key moments in the film illustrate Branagh’s grittier take on this king of England. The first act, in which Henry is first revealed to the audience, is crucial in establishing the dark atmosphere. Branagh also chose to include a scene omitted by Olivier when Henry confronts the traitors, the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey. He also chose to include Henry’s speech to the governor of Harfleur with his colorful threats directed towards the people of the town, which in service to the glittering image of a noble king, Olivier did not include.
In Act I of the play, the first characters the audience sees after the Chorus are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. Olivier, by framing his film’s narrative as a play put on in the 1600s’ Globe Theater, presents this scene in a comedic fashion. The Bishop of Ely dances around Canterbury, trying to find the right documents, eliciting laughter from the audience of the play. Meanwhile, Olivier-Burbage-Henry sits atop his throne rather stiffly. His entrance upon the stage is greeted by the audience’s applause, which sets the admiring, and admittedly single-sided, view of King Henry in Olivier’s film. By contrast, Branagh’s Henry enters a scene lit only by candlelight, in a much emptier throne room, suggesting the more conspiratorial nature of the council. His entrance, shot backlit, obscures his features, casting an ominous presence to the room. This is not Olivier’s Henry, who seems to rule naturally with good-natured ease. Branagh’s Henry is more Machiavellian. He meets with Canterbury and Ely to measure the legitimacy of his political ambitions. Is it coincidence that when the music increases in tension, Henry is framed sinisterly by Canterbury and Ely? Before Montjoy enters, the young king resolves in a close-up shot that he will have France “or break it all to pieces.” This is a Henry who means to be king of France and is not afraid to do whatever is necessary, no matter how brutal, to see that crown on his head.
The siege of Harfleur is presented in vastly different lights in the Branagh film. While in Olivier’s, the mise-en-scene reflected his vision of a chivalrous conflict, with Henry charging and urging his men onward on a bright day, the sun gleaming off his armor, Branagh’s vision has faceless men trudging through mud, lit by explosions. He delivers the line, “Once more into the breach, my friends!” backlit by hellish, orange fire, his face twisted with anger when he roars, “Once more or close the wall up with our English dead!” When he commands his soldiers to “disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage,” he is telling them to surrender their peaceful humanity for animalistic fury. This Henry is a bloodthirsty man of war; the violence doesn’t frighten him – rather, it enlivens him. Branagh’s portrayal echoes the Chorus’ words from the prologue: Henry has truly assumed the “port of Mars.” In Olivier’s film, Harfleur capitulates without need of Henry’s threats, but in Branagh’s, Henry threatens to unleash his soldiers in a murderous orgy upon the town. He even goes so far to say that he will have their “naked infants spitted upon pikes.” While it would not have fit with Olivier’s idea of Henry V as a heroic figure to have him so violent, Henry’s menace is conveyed appropriately in Branagh’s film. The governor of Harfleur peers down through the smoke in abject horror of this dread English sovereign and, like him, the audience knows that Branagh’s Henry is not just bluffing.
The dark scenes included in Branagh’s film show the real man beneath the pomp and ceremony of the throne: Henry V is a soldier, like he says when he woos Katharine, but Branagh’s vision doesn’t concern itself with the illusion of glamor that accompanies such a reputation. A soldier’s job is killing, and Henry, as portrayed by Branagh, is good at it. When he isn’t personally hacking down legions of French soldiers at Agincourt, he is moving to ruthlessly crush rebellion and treason without mercy at home. Nothing will stop him from realizing his ambition – he will be king of France, whatever the cost, in human lives or in his own humanity, may be.