People, I present to you a film so British that it is a remake of a Laurence Olivier film, and I say it like that because this thing is just too faithful to Olivier's vision of Shakespeare's vision that it just cannot be a coincidence. Okay, maybe this film isn't totally ripping off Olivier's "Henry V", but I still stand by the belief that this film marks the beginning of Kenneth Branagh's almost desperate struggle to be the new Laurence Olivier. Come on, Kenny, man, when this came out, Olivier hadn't been dead but about a couple of months, and it's not nice to outdo him at adapting a Shakespeare play this quickly. Shoot, now that I think about it, maybe Branagh has kept up this whole streak of being almost too much like Olivier over the years because he didn't want people to think that he was just riding off of the death of Olivier to get money for this film. Quite frankly, I don't know what in the world he would think that, because even with Branagh's pretty much tricking people to believing that Olivier is still alive, this film barely made its budget back, and it didn't cost but about, like, some change he found around his house or something, and most of it probably went to Christian Bale's accent coach, who must not have been paid by the hour, seeing as how I can see him struggling for a long, long time to keep Bale from dropping his English accent. Usually you can't keep clothes on kids, but in Bale's case, you just couldn't keep English accents on him, but hey, it's not like he's here very often, what with this film's being a bit too long to keep ahold of all of its character, as well as, for that matter, a bit too long in general. Man, I would love to see the looks on the faces of the people who said that back in 1989 when they saw the runtime of Branagh's 1996 Shakespeare adaptation (*cough*Olivier*cough*rip-*cough*off*cough*), which I'd imagine let them give this film even more of the appreciation that it deserves... up to a point, because as good as this film is, and as certainly better than Olivier's "Henry V" as it is, there's no denying some problems.
If William Shakespeare's plays are nothing else, they are expositorific, so of course there's plenty of developmental ramblings within the play that this film faithfully adapts, and yet, with that said, a fair bit more flesh-out could be used in this film, whose talkativeness does only so much to build characters are reasonably well-rounded by this story's end, but undercooked when it comes to the immediate development segments, and even rather unevenly used during the body, thus leaving the momentum of this to slow down, though not as much as it does when facing pacing spots that really are slow. More often than not, this film entertains just fine, and when it does, in fact, slow down, it never goes too limp, yet the fact of the matter is that atmospheric kick tends to dry up at times and leave pacing to drag its feet, distancing your engagement value, much the staginess that taint the final product with awkwardness the most. Throughout the film, you can expect to find Derek Jacobi sometimes randomly pop up in the middle of the environment he discusses when he fulfills his duties as an onscreen narrator, or rather, chorus, and although such a storytelling aspect is unique and colorful, it rarely fits, and throws off momentum that is damaged enough other intentionally stagey storytelling stylistic touches, which establish an atmosphere that gets to be a bit too objective to immerse you, and even mess with smoothness in story structuring. Very much like its 1944 counterpart by - you guessed it - Laurence Olivier, this film keeps relatively very faithful to Shakespeare's vision, in all of its stagey glory, doing very little to tighten up scenes that pack one setting to the brim with focus shifts, subplots and other pieces of layered material that work just fine on stage, but don't quite gel on the silver screen, whose overblown sequences - of which, there are oh so many - come off as uneven and repetitiously aimless as they struggle all but considerably to pad things out. Needless to say, all of this excessive bloating does a number on pacing, which, before too long, finds itself unable to sustain swiftness, resulting in pacelessness that leaves you to feel every one of this film's 137 overlong minutes. True, most every beat this film hits is a strong one, as there is enough compensation to fight back bland hiccups, but bland hiccups still stand, and they're hard to ignore, jabbing away at this ambitious project until it ends up falling short of what it could have been and, of course, what it wants to be. Of course, when it's all said and done, this film rewards, meeting every misstep with a kick, few of which are all that hard, but hard enough to keep you going, or at least milk designs money for all its worth.
At about $9 million in USD, this film's budget is hardly astronomical, especially to be that of a period mini-epic, and sure is worked with quite well, particularly by costume designer Phyllis Dalton, whose tastes make up for sparse relatively elaborate production designs by boasting enough distinct 15th century flavor to sell you on the setting, and attractively so, until we come to a climactic war sequence that isn't exactly stellar, but impresses nevertheless in its tightly putting a tight production design budget to nifty use. The film doesn't have too much money to spend on material that livens things up, but what relative handful of funds that do go into crafting compliments to the production prove to be money well-spent, coloring up this effort's substance, much like Patrick Doyle's script, which is conventional, and rarely all that upstanding by its own right, but nevertheless quite commendable in its often keeping atmospheric juice at a comfortable flow, until it, of course, really kicks in and breathes life into the film's most energetic moments. Touch-ups like the score and production value aren't stellar, but they have their moments to break up a consistent degree of impressiveness that holds your attention just fine and does justice to Shakespeare's vision, though perhaps not as much as Kenneth Branagh's script. Sure, Branagh's writing is faithful to Shakespeare's tastes to a fault, being overblown and stagey, so we're not really looking at all that strong of a script, but what is done quite right in the writing department cannot be ignored, planting just enough dynamicity and flavor into set pieces to draw your attention toward the dialogue that drives storytelling so heavily with that good old-fashioned Shakespearean wit, barely touched and complimented in an inspired fashion, and not just when it comes to writing. Branagh's direction isn't too much stronger than his writing, though it is stronger, and his writing is pretty darn good, so of course the storytelling behind this film is worthwhile, doing only so much to obscure the staginess that it occasionally augments with a dry and object atmosphere, but still keeping energy up just often enough within atmosphere to keep entertainment and engagement value from slipping too far away, and sometimes go backed by dramatic inspiration that delivers on unexpected emotional resonance. The sequence between the action climax and resolution where we, through an impressively comfortable, very lengthy tracking shot, pan along a warzone tainted with carnage to soulful chants is easily the film's most memorable and powerful moment, being so realized in its composition, with a gripping atmospheric kick that punctuates the dramatic depth of this opus richly, and while no other moment comes close to the power of that sequence, Branagh's intriguing inspiration as director commands your attention, much like his inspiration as the acting lead, for although there are plenty of good performances throughout this film, the passionate force that Branagh injects into his line delivery and presence earns your investment in him as a firm and inspiring, yet deeply human leader. Branagh's onscreen charisma is immense, and his offscreen inputs of talent are flawed, yet inspired, charging this effort with enough energy and passion to sustain your investment through all of the staginess and paceless bloating that do some serious damage to reward value, but don't quite shake it.
When the curtains draw, a promising vision is left damaged by overt faithfulness to William Shakespeare's underdevelopment and uneven character usage, as well as the staginess that distances subjective engagement value, and packs scenes with too many extensive layers of material for focus to keep steady long enough to bring smoothness to pacing, which ends up being too thin for the final product to be as compelling as it could have been, but not so thin that the film isn't at all compelling, or rewarding for that matter, as there is enough production and musical value to liven up the rich substance that, when carried by inspired writing, direction and acting, makes Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" a spirited effort that could have been more, but still offers quite a bit.
3/5 - Good