Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday Movies Post

I don't know about the rest of you, but I found this article in the Sunday NYT too depressing for words. Oh Great Historians, take away all our certainties about the past, our comforting myths, our assumption-laden, bias-filled conventional wisdom...but please, can't you leave us Agincourt?

Well, since they won't, I'll talk this week about Henry V. I suppose I could just talk about the play, since this item isn't supposed to be limited to movies, title notwithstanding. What I do try to limit myself to are portrayals of American political institutions or politicians, or at least things that relate directly to those institutions and actors, but I can't really do that with Henry V. On the other hand, I think it's Shakespeare's greatest political play, and since he's Shakespeare and all, that means it might be the greatest political play ever, so there's that. Anyway, I'm not going to talk much about the play itself, since we're all supposed to know about Shakespeare. I'll just say that I use it in classes to teach about the presidency; to teach about political ethics; to teach representation; to teach about families and gender roles in politics; and to help students think about politicians, as a category. And that's just dipping into it, really.

Fortunately for those of us who love Henry V, we have two absolutely wonderful movies. I love them both, but for politics, I think the choice has to be Branagh's 1989 version, rather than Olivier's 1944 movie. The latter, which is generally regarded (I guess) as a gung-ho, patriotic effort, seems to me to be more concerned with issues of stagecraft, storytellling, and moviemaking. It's terrific. No more terrific, though, than Kenneth Branagh's brilliant effort. Let's see...start, as I usually do, with the cast. Hmmm...a lot of standouts, too many to list. Derek Jacoby is wonderful as the chorus. Richard Briers as Bardolph, and Judi Dench as Quickly, both terrific. I like all the French a lot -- Paul Scofield as the sadder-but-wiser King, Michael Maloney's impossibly immature Dauphin, Christopher Ravenscroft as Mountjoy...I'm just going to babble on, aren't I. Ian Holms is great. Oh, can't forget Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan, funny and charming and heartbreaking.

The big trivia, for the cast, is that Christian Bale is Boy. The best thing about it is that Branagh doesn't wheel in any horribly miscast big-name Americans to muck up the proceedings.

It has a reputation, again I guess, as an anti-war version, but I think it's far more subtle than that. No question but that politics is in the forefront, beginning with the corrupt (or are they?) churchmen scheming to use war to fulfill their self-interest. What I love about the play is the portrayal of the king as a real, working politician, putting the skills he learned in the Henry IV plays to work for him. I've argued (in an unfortunately unpublished so far paper) that you can almost see Henry inventing representation as he visits with his men on the night before Agincourt, trying to understand them so that he can properly lead them. Branagh, both as a director and an actor, drives those aspects of the play home. As far as an anti-war theme, I think Branagh's emphasis on the muddled, selfish reasons for war and his emphasis on the costs of battle don't wind up serve to make it against war in general, at least as I see the movie; instead, it balances out the picture. After all, Henry's heroism survives fully intact in this version, and as long as Henry is portrayed as a hero I don't think the play can be truly, and certainly not simply, anti-war.

Both are great, great movies -- highest recommendation.

Before leaving the far as I can tell, people generally like Branagh's Henry V and Much Ado, and then turned against him either on Hamlet or Love's Labour Lost. Now, I liked all of them, so I don't know how much you can trust me here, but if you enjoyed the first two you might want to seek out his (2006) As You Like It. First rate.

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