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This is a brilliantly conceived movie-within-a-play-within-a-movie that
showcases the genius of Laurence Olivier. Today's audiences are exposed
mainly to Olivier the movie actor. But if you want to see a purer form
of acting, see Olivier the stage actor. This is possible by watching
his Shakespeare plays on film. And these films are by Olivier the
"auteur," long before the term was coined. Olivier's is the legacy to
which Branaugh and others, who essay Shakespeare on film, must live up
And lest you're expecting a camera pointed at a stage, don't worry.
Olivier, who produced and directed most of his Shakespeare films, has
actually used the film medium to enlarge his plays' visual scope, while
maintaining the intimacy that is the essence of live theatre. Also,
Olivier is mindful of how daunting the language of Shakespeare is for
modern audiences and has modified much of the original script to be
more comprehensible, while preserving the feel of Elizabethan English.
Olivier's "Henry V" was to England what Eisentein's "Ivan the Terrible"
was to Russia a familiar history rendered as a national epic, for
morale purposes, while audiences were fighting off the Germans during
World War II. There are other parallels. For example, both use static,
formalized composition, in Henry V's case meant to resemble the images
in medieval illuminated manuscripts and books of Hours. (In Ivan's
case, according to Pauline Kael, like Japanese Kabuki.) Thus, a sound
stage "exterior" backdrop becomes a tableau that serves to enhance,
with its flat perspective and subjective scale, the view we have of
that fabulous Age of Chivalry for which the play's Battle of Agincourt
was the closing act.
I've always scoffed at the extravagant accolades which show business
gives its own. But after seeing this film, or his equally brilliant
"Hamlet," I can understand why Laurence Olivier was so good, that a
knighthood wasn't enough, and so he was raised to the peerage.
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