Tuesday, September 30, 2008

HENRY V (Laurence Olivier, 1944, UK) Laurence Olivier transposes Shakespeare in the round to Shakespeare in the square; or more precisely, the 4:3 screen frame. HENRY V begins with a bird’s eye view of 16th Century London, a slow tracking shot across the cityscape and dissolves into the depths of the Globe Theatre. A rowdy crowd is beginning to fill the theatre just as the play begins. Olivier films mostly in medium and long shots so we experience the play as the audience does, but he lets the camera sneak backstage so we see the actors rushing to change costume and quickly memorize dialogue. The frantic behind-the-scenes look improvised because the illusion is nearly perfect but on closer inspection we admire the masterful choreography of the verbal ballet and physical humor. As King Henry V appears onstage we see his entrance from a surprising point-of-view: from backstage, framed within a doorway with the camera’s deep focus capturing the cheering gallery beyond. The play must go on as the downpour begins and this adds a veneer of realism; the soaking wet environment cannot dampen the spirit of the performance. Then the Chorus takes us through the curtain and the play opens up into the film: a huge stylized soundstage as the King prepares to sail to France. Here, Olivier begins to pull the focus into medium close-ups, which allows us intimacy, an emotional embrace with the characters that become dear friends, before they charge once more, unto the breach. The acting is excellent with the right inflections and dramatic pacing: the characters retain their stage-like presence yet become more human and personal. Most of the film is created with conventional backdrops but the few outdoor scenes remain unforgettable: as the Battle of Agincourt rages across a lush green field, arrows darken the morning sky, steel cuts into bone, and young men’s blood dampens the earth. Olivier utilizes a beautiful tracking shot that is at least 30 seconds long: he follows a hundred mounted knights as they first canter then incrementally quicken their pace until a full charge into the bloody fray! Though the film doesn’t show us the entrails and gore of war, we feel the death of the innocent squires and brave soldiers, and demand reparations…and the King delivers. His mano-a-mano with the French Constable is gloriously filmed with quick close-ups like sword strikes. As the battle ends, we see the field littered with corpses with a few young bloodied faces in the foreground. Olivier never lets us forget the price of war, no matter how justified…but only fiction can make war a glorious deed from the inglorious dead. (A)

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