Cinema: King Ken Comes to Conquer

A brash British star turns Henry V into an antiwar war movie

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Well, he's done it: created a Henry for a decade poised between belligerence and exhaustion. He found a camera style that illuminates the actors with torch power and Rembrandt lighting. His elite cast reads like a Burke's Peerage of British acting: stage eminences Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Alec McCowen and Robert Stephens; TV comedians Richard Briers and Robbie Coltrane; Brian Blessed and Christopher Ravenscroft from Branagh's RSC Henry; most of his own rep company; and his bright bride Emma. This galaxy surrounds a director who, like Henry, can orchestrate a magnificent sally, manipulate diverse talents, bend them to his will. And temper artistry with efficiency: Branagh completed the shooting ahead of schedule and under budget.

Olivier's Henry V, commissioned by the wartime British government, was a handsome piece of morale boosting. It said all the war's a stage. And on this stage a tiny band of English heroes defeated the evil French (read German) army at Agincourt. It's Robin Hood vs. the Nazis. Olivier's pageant was sunny and sumptuous, and so was his Henry: resourceful in battle, generous in victory, ever cheery and brimful of confidence. Why, he might be Kenneth Branagh!

But not Branagh's new Henry. This is a headstrong lad evolving into a strong King. He can betray as well as be kind, renouncing old friends like Falstaff and Bardolph even if it means they die heartbroken. He can threaten rape and murder of the innocents, then summon God to provide divine artillery and lead the English "once more unto the breach." The Agincourt battle, which Olivier staged as a fantasy joust, is a muddy, brutal fellowship of death here. It has the acrid tang of World War I carnage and the guilty aftertaste of victory in the Falklands. In its crafty heart, Henry V is an antiwar war movie.

Henry knows that at Agincourt he has won a great upset, with all of France as his booty. Yet Branagh has to show the awful cost. In an elaborate, chilling tracking shot that lasts nearly four minutes, the exhausted King staggers across the battlefield, the dead weight of Falstaff's boy page across his shoulders, past a tableau of casualties. Instead of a triumph, then, a requiem -- for youthful ideals tested in war and found lacking. Not until film's end, when Henry plays the soldier unsuited to seduction, does the sly dazzle of Branagh's charm break through the heavy clouds of Henry's majesty. He is an earthy Olivier and his worthy avatar.

For the man who would be King, early life did not promise much in the way of spotlights. The Branagh family, working-class Protestants in Belfast, produced craftsmen, not stage stars. Ken's father was a carpenter who moved the family to Reading, England, in 1970, when the Troubles roiled too close to home. Within a year, as Branagh recalls in his breezy autobiography, "I'd managed to become English at school and remain Irish at home." It was his first acting challenge, and it fueled his resolve to perform.

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