2) Henry V (1989)
We’ve already seen the best that Branagh has to offer, but now let’s go back a few more years to how he got started. Branagh’s first film (and first Shakespeare film) was this thrilling, visceral adaptation of Henry V. The play tells the story of the young King who, through an ancient claim, decides to wage war against France in an attempt to gain the French throne.
Now there are two main versions of this play that have been released theatrically, one from Olivier and one from Branagh. Olivier’s 1944 adaptation is excellent as well, treating the play as though it really were a play at first, being performed upon a stage before moving along to actual sets, but the one that most people will have most likely heard of is Branagh’s version. It was so well-received in fact, that Branagh earned Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, as well as the BAFTA for Best Director. Not bad for his first film.
Branagh takes the play and makes it a much more gritty adaptation than people saw with Olivier’s. In particular, his staging of the Battle of Agincourt (the major battle near the end of the play) is bloody, dirty, and doesn’t skimp on the horrors of war. This is shown exquisitely, not only in the battle scenes themselves, but in an amazing long tracking shot after the battle that shows us the aftermath.
Like his adaptation of Hamlet, this too has a stellar cast that includes Branagh, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Briers, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and Christian Bale (in one of his earlier roles). If there was one thing that Branagh knew how to do really well for these Shakespeare films, it was casting the right person for the right part… well, that’s true almost all the time, but more on that later on in the list.
This great adaptation of Henry V is not only worth seeing because of the cast, but because it is an exciting, patriotic story (just you try not to give a cheer during Harry’s infamous St. Crispin’s Day speech!) Hopefully this is one we’ll be seeing hit Blu-Ray soon. The DVDs are starting to look a little old and dark. With its 25th anniversary right around the corner, there’s no time like the present to give the film a much-deserved upgrade.
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