Cinema by Clive Fisher
FOR an actor to follow Laurence Olivier is similar to a painter's reworking the ceiling of the Sistine: to say the least, audacious, provocative and defiant.
True, it has already happened many times, but only with theatrical recreations of Olivier's greatest roles, and even they were subject to oblivion. Now someone has dared to film his own interpretation of Henry V, when Olivier's conception of 1944 Is vivid forever on celluloid. Moreover, as an extraordinary mortal, •Olivier's reputation observed extraordinary fluctuations. His flamboyant, anti-naturalistic acting was unfashionable long before his death. Now that he has joined Garrick and Kean, his stock is sure to rise, just as incredulous cinema-goers flock to a new Henry V (Curzon, "18").
By 1944, Olivier was acknowledged as a great actor; his knighthood came three years later. If his Henry V was technically highly innovative, it was also usefully propagandist: although in 1939 Britain fought in self-defence, where in 1415 she had acted with shameless aggression, parallels could be drawn between the Battle of Britain and Agincourt's Happy Few. Eager to catch the mood of the times, Olivier also excised scenes suggestive of national disunity: Shakespeare's melancholy closing chorus went, as did the traitors' scene, and his priests were transformed from imposing ultramontanists to bumbling vicars.
Kenneth Branagh has happily made good these tinkerings. But why did he choose this play in the first place? We have no need now of propaganda, whatever many directors may think. Perh pee he was merely determined to breathe fife into the largely workmanlike prose and poetry and counter the charge that in this Shakespeare the bores hugely predominate.
If so, casting was crucial but successful and it is a joy to see so many actors, rescued from the television sitcoms in which they normally simper, forced to fight for our attention. , Polished, cameos sparkle throughout: Brian Blessed's superb Exeter; Paul Scofield's King of France, fastidious and dry as a parchment .':roll; Geraldine McKewan's knowing lady-inwaiting. Mercifully, the might of French chivalry, by theatrical tradition effete and beribboned, is here plausibly virile.
Olivier's stylised mise en scene, reminiscent of the due de Berry's Tres Riches Heures, gives way to mud and blood. Agincourt is a slow-motion holocaust which in its savagery recalls Pcckinpah.
The Chorus is always a problem. Olivier's solution a disembodied voice, after the first appearance beats Branagh's decision to have Derek Jacobi pursue the action in contemporary clothes, looking like a stray from another set. And close-ups of an antiquated map to show the invasion from Southampton to Agincourt really' will not do.
Such devices are unimaginative, but Branagh's style of cinematography is positively wilful. Olivier reinvented the significance of tracking shots and close-ups in his Henry V, famously pulling his camera away, rather than pushing it forward, at moments of climax. Branagh opts for too many insistent close-ups. I know actors dislike personal comments about their awareness but Branagh's small, liplcss mouth is here very difficult to overlook.
The aim has been to escape the Olympian self-confidence of Olivier's Henry and here I liked very much what Branagh did. "What have kings that privates have not too/Save ceremony...?" this young Henry wonders, and we accept his disquiet.
Branagh has a beautiful voice and if there is too little variation between gentle introspection and colortation, that is as much Shakespeare's fault as his. The wooing of Katherine is necessarily played comically. The
Saint Crispin's speech, winsome and sing-song, recalled Doctor Doolittle. 1 could not believe at all in Branagh as Hal.
For all my complaints, I loved this film. 1 overlook its weaknesses because the very undertaking of such an enterprise is so staggering. And my attenpon never wandered.