When Henry V debuted in 1989, 28-year-old director and star Kenneth Branagh was hailed as the new Olivier. It was something of a premature announcement, but not unwarranted. Twenty-five years later, it’s still Branagh’s best movie, even if he did improve in subsequent films. For instance, Henry V’s beginning is weighed down by dull politics and difficult language (though Derek Jacobi’s opening monologue is inspired,) and Much Ado About Nothing, by contrast, improves in clarity. But Branagh proved to suffer from Peter Jackson Syndrome: his judgment clouded by fame and large budgets.
As a Shakespeare fan, I’m nowhere near expert. Henry V is my favorite movie adaptation of The Bard, and my inexperience may partly be the reason—for it is both accessible in its raw, visceral emotion and complex in its treatment of the subject material. Still, I'd definitely recommend this one to those who have read the play, for it often opts for emotion over simplicity.
A plot summary really ought to be superfluous, but Henry V isn’t actually as familiar on a cultural level as Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet. In brief, it’s the tale of a young medieval king who led his country to war against France, narrated by a snazzily-dressed Derek Jacobi, and featuring the best pre-battle pep talk of all time.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” That one.