Henry V (1944 – Blu-Ray)

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France, or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Another BFI top twenty Brit flick down in the shape of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.  I rented it on Blu-Ray from LoveFilm knowing that it was a forties Technicolor film which I adore as they usually look eye-popping.  The radiant colours of the costumes do indeed look magnificent, especially the fiercesome reds and electric blues of the knights pageantry.  Unfortunately the image restoration seems to have employed a little too much smoothing, leading to a noticeably flat look on the actors faces in the mid ground shots.

The possibilities of Technicolor were used by Olivier to try to re-create the look of medieval illuminations moving in three dimensions, including their odd skewed perspectives.  This is mostly used in the second third of film creating some truly unique and magical images.  But I found this admittedly dazzling technique combined with the novel stage-bound intro to be interesting but ultimately alienating when trying to simply get involved with the story.  At the mid-point the style settles down a bit starting with a powerful scene following the king as he walks unrecognised through his nervous troops as they wait together for the dawn to come.  The light comes up almost imperceptibly during the extended sequence and the sun comes out on a new realistic looking landscape. Olivier populates this vista with what looks like thousands of soldiers and shoots the battle with huge sweeping camera moves and tracking shots of charging horses.  Olivier’s commanding delivery of the two big speeches are rightly praised and at the time it was released it must have delivered his desired uplifting patriotic message to war-weary brits. I’ll have to have a watch of Kenneth Branagh’s controversial 1989 version for comparison while this is still fresh in the memory.


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