In the past decade it seems that most Shakespeare adaptations have been turbo-charged or reimagined as updated hybrids, like the hopped-up Romeo + Juliet, the fascist Richard III, or Al Pacino's documentary / study session hybrid Looking For Richard. When Kenneth Branaugh approaches Shakespeare, however, it is with a reverence and an awe that lets you know that even if he changes something it is gonna be to try to bring it closer to the Bard's vision. His epic Hamlet presented the entire text and his Much Ado About Nothing even opened with words on the screen backed by a voice, to make sure that you knew that watching his films is like reading the original text. It all started for Branaugh with his 1989 film of Henry V. His approach is not traditional in a Laurence Olivier theatrical way but rather he stages the scenes in realistic environments, allowing the grit and grime of the locations to inform the texture of the film. The much heralded battle between England and France that comprises much of the climax of the film is pretty spectacular and the blood and dirt make it achingly real, as do the costumes and the lighting. What makes this sequence so memorable is the attention to detail: During the charge of the French army Branaugh doesn't focus on advancing horses, but rather the faces of the English soldiers and nobles anticipating the battle, twisting and contorting in a complex mix of emotions. By the time Henry orders attack and the arrows are finally let loose the scene has built up to such a powerful crescendo that it completely explodes in action.
If his approach to staging the film is modern his casting is classic BBC. The list of actors in the film reads like a who's who of great Brits: Derek Jacobi, Paul Scofield, Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, and a very young Christian Bale. One distracting element, however, is the inclusion of a narrator in modern dress (Jacobi) who walks through the sets reading Shakespeare's Chorus role. Other than that the film is a visual success and a true version of a classic.
The anamorphic video presentation is very good. There is some grain, which matches the filthiness of the battlefield and the dim castle interiors well.
Even though the film is only mixed in 2.0 the audio is strong, especially during the battle. The score is really huge and works well.
MGM has only included a trailer, which is a tragedy. Just think of the extras that could have been included: Commentary from Branaugh and a Shakespeare expert, comparison to other film and stage versions, costume design sketches with commentary, an analysis of what was cut from the text, etc... Oh well.
One extra that I think should definitely have been included is an English subtitle track. Being able to single out Shakespeare's lines, especially during scenes with a lot of background noise or whispering, would have been valuable. Only French and Spanish are available.
I'd imagine that Henry V might be a bit tough for those not familiar with the text, but this is a rewarding version of the play. Branaugh may have condensed parts, but he wisely opened up other parts and created a memorable film in the process.