The weight of leadership in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V”

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"Henry V"

What does it mean to be a leader? Such a question often brings divisive responses. 

Despite the abundance of differences in defining a leader, there is a standard of core values that we can reflect on. Decisiveness, bravery, prudence, and virtue are all universally recognized marks of a true leader. A true leader must turn away from their own desires for the common good, even if it means personal sacrifice and suffering.

“Henry V,”  a 1989 film adaptation of the play by William Shakespare directed by Kenneth Branagh, well-known for his Shakespeare adaptations such as “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” depicts the rise of a young King Henry V. 

Set in early 15th century Europe, Henry V, played by Branagh, is the new ascendent to the English throne. Known for being a rowdy and rambunctious youth, Henry is determined to prove himself as a capable king by leading his armies to victory against the French. 

No one expects much from Henry, and his claims to regions in France are met with scorn from the French leaders, who believe him to be a child meddling in adult affairs. Henry’s need to show himself as a mature king leads to several fantastic exchanges with the French, his former friends, and his men. 

Throughout the film Henry displays his natural affinity for leadership, as he justly engages with allies, enemies and traitors alike. 

The major problem that Henry must overcome is maintaining control of his tired forces against a massive French army. After Henry’s inspirational St. Crispin’s Day speech, the beaten-down English army achieves a miraculous victory at Agincourt, ensuring Henry’s victory and control of the thrones of both England and France. 

Many parts of the movie are done incredibly well. The music composed by Patrick Doyle is on par with that of John Williams, and it is truly a joy to listen to the accompanying music underscoring  major plot points. 

The plot is engaging, managing the right balance of political intrigue, action, and inspirational moments that bring the best of Shakespeare from the pages to the big screen. 

One scene in particular does this very well. Henry confronts several nobles who are traitors to the English crown. These nobles would have been close friends with Henry from childhood, and the sorrow from Henry is almost palpable as Henry laments their treachery.

Being a movie adaption of a play, it is critical that the right actors are chosen for the various roles, and “Henry V” did not disappoint. Director Kenneth Branagh as Henry commands every scene he is present in. 

Line deliverance was nothing short of spectacular; the actors appeared as if they not only knew how to play their parts properly, but that they understood them as well — in a way, the actors became the characters themselves. 

Each character arc was masterfully written and added to the already immense value this movie has, and a viewer could pick up something new with each time they rewatched the play. 

That being said, for first-time watchers, the movie can be confusing since certain pieces of the movie can appear disjointed at first glance. For example, the various comedic relief parts, while essential to the overall story, do tend to throw off the tempo of the plot at times. 

We suggest that watching more than one version might help the viewer come to a better understanding of the play and decide for themselves which rendition they most enjoy. Additionally, the movie is an abridged version of the plot. Branagh cut several pieces from the play, so viewers looking for a specific one-to-one conversion may be disappointed. 

Henry’s story demonstrates that one is not born a leader, but must be taught. The film exhibits Henry learning how to properly undertake kingly duties through many trials, from the treachery of some of his close friends to encouraging his men as they brave horrible weather and sickness during their march to Agincourt. 

Henry discovers that with great power comes great responsibility — he must take care of those under his command and find the will to push on even under the most daunting of circumstances. A true leader mans his post until he accomplishes victory, or reaches the bitter end.

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