This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Shakespeare's "Henry V" is a favorite play of the British in times of national crisis, and in 1944, during the darkest days of World War II, Laurence Olivier directed and starred in it as a patriotic call to the barricades. Perhaps it is no coincidence that another hot-blooded Turk of the London stage, Kenneth Branagh, has directed and starred in this new film version in 1989, as Britain stands poised uneasily on the banks of the new Europe, its toe dipped shyly into the waters of monetary union.
There is no more stirring summons to arms in all of literature than Henry's speech to his troops on St. Crispan's Day, ending with the lyrical "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." To deliver this speech successfully is to pass the acid test for anyone daring to perform the role of Henry V in public, and as Kenneth Branagh, as Henry, stood up on the dawn of the Battle of Agincourt and delivered the famous words, I was emotionally stirred even though I had heard them many times before. That is one test of a great Shakespearian actor: to take the familiar and make it new.
Branagh is not yet 30, and yet already the publicity machines are groaning to make him into the "new Olivier." Before his "Henry V," he had made only one other movie (he was the sunburned young husband in "High Season"), but he has triumphed on the London stage in such talismanic roles as Jimmy Porter in Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," and his stock could not be higher. It was a risk to make this film, and it could have been a disastrous failure, but instead it is a success.
That it is not a triumph is because Branagh the director is not yet as good as Branagh the actor. He knows better how to play Henry V than how to get him on and off the screen, and his pacing could be improved. The film begins slowly, bogs down in the seemingly endless battle scenes and then drags to its conclusion through Henry's endlessly protracted and coy courtship of Katherine.