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Glories of Henry V far outweigh faults


Adapted, directed by, and

starring Kenneth Branagh.

Now playing at the Nickelodeon.


THERE HAS RARELY IN RECENT times been much comparison between artists of the past and present. Perhaps it is because the parallels have never run so deep: Kenneth Branagh has followed in the theatrical footsteps of Sir Laurence Olivier, culminating in his film debut as the director and star of Shakespeare's Henry V as did Olivier 45 years before him.

But both directors chose to interpret Henry V in the context of their respective eras, and so it is at this juncture that their paths diverge. Olivier constructed an uplifting drama of Henry surmounting the obstacle of an overwhelming French force, alluding to the ability of a wartorn English populace to face an overwhelming German bombardment. Branagh's interpretation of Shakespeare's play fits squarely in the cynical 80s, painting Henry more as a charming, misguided antihero.

It is an impressive debut by Branagh, but not without its flaws. He certainly has a knack for garnering strong performances from his actors, and uses lighting and camera distance to effectively set the mood. But Branagh's cutting and camera movement leave something to be desired in their lack of fluidity and transition.

Branagh seems intent on fully fleshing out the ever-shifting moods of the young king and is successful for the most part. He is both ferocious and charming in the title role, his acting never faltering. Moreover, these mood shifts are underscored by subtle use of somber lighting and punctuated by timely closeups.

The faults of Branagh's Henry V lie mainly in the translation of pacing from theater to film. Branagh has not solved the problems of choppiness that usually occur in such a translation, and cuts between scenes often leave the audience floundering for a few minutes before again finding firm footing. Particularly unsettling are Henry's flashbacks to earlier days with Falstaff and the other friends of his youth.

But the glories of Branagh's Henry V far outweigh its faults. The supporting cast more than live up to the standards set by Branagh's performance, each stealing a scene of his own. And the scenes just preceding and during the Battle of Agincourt, in which the vastly outnumbered English defeat the superior French forces, are tours de force of tempo and raw ferocity.

Henry's disguised meanderings through his encampment the night before the battle reveal Branagh's facility in portraying subdued tension through lighting and mise-en-sc`ene. The scene's beauty lies in Branagh's ability to also infuse high spirits through his men's unswerving loyalty despite the overcast mood of what seems a hopeless campaign. It is here that Branagh touches closest to Olivier's Henry V.

The Battle of Agincourt unleashes Branagh's full fury. Interspersing muddied, slow-motion scenes of battle with masses of arrows literally raining from the sky, Branagh conveys the appropriate chaos and madness of medieval battle. There is a sense of fate and destiny in the warriors' inability to alter what is happening around them, punctuated by Branagh's camera work and cutting.

With such a strong first outing by Branagh, the tradition of bringing Shakespearean theater to film is once again in sure hands. Time will tell if the comparisons between Branagh and Olivier are justified.