I fall asleep in nearly every Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen—onstage or on the screen. You can set your clock by it—20 minutes in for 10 minutes. After that, I’m good to go, rested and refreshed. It’s not that I find the Bard boring, I think it’s a case of my mind being lulled by the poetry of the writing and it takes some time for my brain to kick into gear. One Shakespeare film I did not sleep through was Kenneth Branagh’s muscular HENRY V (1989).
Twenty-nine-year-old Branagh had a tough act to follow when he filmed his version of Shakespeare’s popular play. Though the actor had already been labeled a “genius” and the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier, the 1945 film version (starring Olivier) was considered a classic and many were concerned how this young upstart would translate Shakespeare’s play to contemporary audiences. Said Branagh, “HENRY V emerges as a political thriller, a warts-and-all study of leadership, a complex debate about war and the pity of war, an uncompromising analysis of the English class system….The crucial bonding agent in all this was the music.”
Though Patrick Doyle had been an actor and composer with Branagh’s theater troupe, the director was nervous about hiring a first-time film composer (even though it was also Branagh’s first film). Doyle was nervous, too. He commented, “[Writing the score] was a very frightening experience, but the Walton thing was really the last thing on my mind, because the job in hand was for me more terrifying than following in his footsteps. I had to create my own footsteps.” And Doyle’s score is every bit as majestic, exciting, and moving as William Walton’s 45 years earlier.
Feeling the music needed to be “of our time, classically rich in tone but instantly accessible,” Branagh did not want to use period instruments. The director “always, always” encouraged size: “the epic approach, thunderous, full-blooded, heroic size.” And Doyle’s “operatic” score granted Branagh’s wish that “every tune…make an impact.” And nowhere is that operatic impact felt more keenly than in the bloody aftermath of the battle at Agincourt.
The theme for “Non nobis, Domine,” first heard under the prologue and later as Henry roams through the camp on the eve of battle, represents loss. What begins as a lamenting tenor solo (sung by Doyle himself) as the soldiers gather up their dead, becomes a rousing choral anthem to the English victory at Agincourt.
If you can watch this scene and not shed a tear, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.