Friday, March 19, 2010

#41: Henry V

(Laurence Olivier, 1944)

The first of the three major Olivier Shakespeare adaptations, Henry V is still relevant in its historical context (the film was made while World War II was still raging, and was meant to inspire with rousing patriotism), and the structure is perhaps the most unique of any Shakespeare film to date. Of the Shakespeare adaptations that preserve the original dialog, Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet is probably the only film that can compete with this for most original production (sorry, Orson).

This is because the movie starts out on stage, in a performance of the play circa 1600 in Shakespeare's Globe theater, before moving to a more surreal, almost two-dimensional setting, which transitions into the more realistic depiction of the battle at Agincourt. This structure makes the film far more interesting conceptually than Olivier's later Richard III, but it doesn't particularly make the play's events any more compelling.

It remains amazing to me that this film and Olivier's subsequent adaptations were successful not just in their native land but in the US, with general audiences. I like to think that we are not, in fact, growing dumber as a country, but the short attention spans of today's audiences would be no match for this movie's lumbering pace. It is often amazing how poorly the most popular films of a time can age - and in fact many of the most successful movies of the era were miserable. But Henry V doesn't seem bad, it just seems dry. Why would a play written four hundred years ago still have resonance fifty years ago, but not today?

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