Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Here's two version's of the Crispian's Day speech from Shakespeare's "Henry V." If you're like most people then you prefer the newer Branagh version (above), which is acted more naturally and some would say more believably. Branagh's is also more filmic, at least at the start. You feel like you're right there on the edge of the woods with King Harry. Me, I prefer the stodgy, static, orator's version served up by Olivier (below).
Watch both and compare. If you have time to watch Olivier's entire ten minute clip then take a close look at the charge of the mounted knights at the end. It's the best charge I've ever seen on film.
I prefer Olivier's version, not only because he was a better orator, but because he had more awareness of the subtext of the piece. In my opinion Shakespeare bought into the Greek idea that the form that language takes coveys meaning, not just the content. "I saw as through a glass darkly" conveys more than "I had difficulty understanding what I was looking at," even though the literal meaning is identical. The first is beautiful and poetic and makes us feel the speaker can be trusted. The first quote gives us pleasure and a glimpse into a better, more aristocratic world. The second conveys only information.
The thing is, that if you're using language that's better than the way people really speak, then you have to deliver those lines in a better way than people really speak.
You have to use artifice that everyone accepts as real, but actually isn't. That's what Olivier did in this film.
Of course Olivier took it to an extreme. He figured that naturalistic sets would seem jarring if they were a backdrop to artificial dialogue, so he made the sets and costumes deliberately stage-like. Everything in Olivier's film is subordinated to Shakespeare's beautiful words. I think he did the right thing. What do you think?
Posted by Eddie Fitzgerald at 9:49 PM