Make no mistake. Kenneth Branagh is a cocksure twenty-eight-year-old talent explosion from Belfast, Ireland. He’s already debuted with London’s prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, starred in movies (High Season, A Month in the Country) and on British television (Fortunes of War), created his own Renaissance Theater Company and written his autobiography, Beginning.
His next step is even more audacious. It’s been only a few months since the death of the great Laurence Olivier. And here’s Branagh following in his lordship’s footsteps with Henry V, Olivier’s triumphant first attempt to star in and direct filmed Shakespeare. That was in 1944. It was wartime, and the British government, needing to fire up the troops, financed Olivier’s film. After all, King Henry was a national hero; though outnumbered five to one, Harry and his invading army managed to crush the French forces. The King’s charge — “God for Harry! England and Saint George!” — became a World War Ii patriotic rallying cry.
Nothing that traditional for Branagh. His portrayal of Harry as a lonely, self-doubting ruler may infuriate those attached to Olivier’s decisive hero. But Branagh’s interpretation is equally valid. Olivier was nearing forty when he played the role, which is a decade older than Harry, whose age then matches Branagh’s now. Olivier was patrician in looks and manner; Branagh has the doughy, open face of a street tough. But his plangent voice, the most exciting and distinctive since Richard Burton’s, captures the poetry and potency of Shakespeare.
There’s an unquenchable fire in Branagh’s Harry, as well as recognizable human weaknesses. This king may have the wit to charm a kiss out of a virtuous French princess or marshal an army into battle, but Branagh shows the wariness that drives Harry into solitude; he uncovers the inner resources Harry must muster to inspire his soldiers to fight a war he cannot always justify to himself. Branagh is a marvel. You can’t take your eyes off him.
As a director, Branagh mercifully avoids most of the fancy tricks tried by first-timers. And he excels with the actors, including such lights of the British theater as Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench and Paul Scofield. As Princess Katherine, the French king’s daughter, Emma Thompson makes a splendid romantic foil for Branagh. And offscreen, as well: The two married in August, pegging them as a glamorous theatrical couple similar to Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The comparisons are odious but also inevitable. Like Olivier, Branagh has made a hotblooded, lively and moving Henry V that speaks pertinently to a new generation. His film is more than a promising first try: It’s thrilling.