The film received worldwide critical acclaim and has been widely considered one of the best Shakespeare film adaptations ever made. For her work on the film, Phyllis Dalton won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design and Kenneth Branagh, in his directorial debut, received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.
The film begins with Chorus, in this case a person in modern dress, introducing the subject of the play. He is walking through an empty film studio and ends his monologue by opening the doors to begin the main action. Chorus reappears several times during the film, his speeches helping to explain and progress the action.
The following act divisions reflect the original play, not the film.
Early 15th century in England: The Bishop of Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury collude to distract young King Henry V from passing a decree that might confiscate property from the church. They agree to talk him into invading France. Canterbury appears in the throne room and explains to the King's advisers that Henry is rightful heir to the throne of France on the grounds that the Salic law in France unjustly bars his claim to the throne and should be disregarded. Supported by the noblemen Exeter and Westmoreland, the clergymen manage to persuade Henry to declare war on France if his claim on the French crown is denied.
Henry calls in Mountjoy, a representative of the Dauphin. The Dauphin's condescending response takes the form of the delivery of a chest of tennis balls. Exeter, who opens the chest, is appalled, but Henry at first takes the insult calmly. He goes on to state his determination to attack France, dismisses the ambassador and starts to plan his campaign.
Henry tricks three high-ranked traitors into pronouncing their own sentence by asking advice on the case of a man who shouted insults at him in the street. When they recommend that he show no mercy to this minor offender, the King reveals his knowledge of their own sedition; they draw their daggers, but are quickly subdued by Henry's loyal nobles. Exeter arrests them for high treason and Henry orders their execution before crossing the English Channel.
Meanwhile, in France, Charles VI, the King of France and his noblemen discuss King Henry's threats. The Dauphin (portrayed as something of a playboy) does not fear Henry, but Charles and the Constable of France are worried because of Henry's martial ancestors and their previous English invasions. Exeter arrives in full armor. He informs them that Henry demands the French crown and is prepared to take it by force if it is withheld, and delivers an insulting message to the Dauphin. King Charles tells Exeter he will give him a reply the following day.
King Henry delivers a morale-boosting speech to his troops and attacks the walled city of Harfleur. When the Dauphin fails to relieve the city in time, the governor surrenders in return for Henry's promise to do Harfleur's population no harm. Henry orders Exeter to repair its fortifications.
Katharine, a French princess who had been arranged to marry King Henry prior to the war, asks her lady-in-waiting Alice to teach her some basics in English. Correct English pronunciation is very hard for her to learn but she is determined to accomplish it. In a silent moment, Katharine watches her father and his courtiers and notes how worried they appear. King Charles finally orders his nobles to engage Henry's troops, halt their advance, and bring Henry back a prisoner.
The English troops struggle toward Calais through foul weather and sickness; Bardolph is hanged for looting a church. The French ambassador Mountjoy arrives and demands Henry pay a ransom for his person or place himself and his entire army at risk. Henry refuses, replying that even his reduced and sickly army is sufficient to resist a French attack.
In the boisterous French camp the night before the battle, the French nobility wait impatiently for the morning, and it is clear that the Dauphin is not popular with the other nobles. In the more sober and silent English camp, following a brief meeting with his brothers, Gloucester and Bedford, together with Sir Thomas Erpingham, Henry decides to look into the state of his troops and wanders his camp in disguise. He meets Pistol, who fails to recognize him. Soon afterwards, he encounters a small group of soldiers, including Bates and Williams, with whom he debates his own culpability for any deaths to follow. He and Williams almost come to blows, and they agree to duel the day after, should they survive. When Williams and his friends leave the King alone, Henry breaks into a monologue about his burdens and prays to God for help.
Next morning, the English Army is outnumbered five to one. Henry encourages his troops with his St Crispin's Day Speech and responds angrily when Mountjoy renews the Dauphin's offer of ransom. The battle begins with the charge of the French cavalry, but the English archery and countercharge cut down a large part of the advancing army before it ever reaches their lines. When the Constable of France is killed, the dismayed French leaders realize the battle is lost and become desperate. Some of them manage to get behind enemy lines and, deprived of any hope to turn the battle, break the code of chivalry by murdering the young and defenseless English pages and setting fire to the English tents. Henry and his officer Fluellen come upon the carnage and are still appalled when Mountjoy delivers the French surrender.
Henry returns Williams' glove, this time out of disguise, and William is shocked to learn that the man he was arguing with the night before was King Henry himself.
The act ends with a four-minute long tracking shot, as Non nobis is sung and the dead and wounded are carried off the field.
Finally negotiations are made for Henry to be named king of both England and France. While the French and English royal delegations negotiate the Treaty of Troyes, the sides take a brief intermission in which Henry privately speaks with Katharine. He assures Kate that by marrying a French princess he demonstrates his respect for the people of France, but more to the point they should love one another as man and woman. The delegation returns and Henry announces a hopeful era of long peace with the joining of the two kingdoms. The film ends with Chorus detailing the history after the events of the film, culminating in the loss of the French throne by Henry VI.
The text of the play is heavily edited. Additionally, Branagh incorporated flashbacks using extracts from Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 in which Henry interacts with the character of Falstaff, who, in Shakespeare's Henry V, is never seen, merely announced to be deathly ill in Act 2 Scene 1, and dead in Act 2 scene 3. The scenes involve a brief summary of Henry's denouncement of Falstaff primarily with lines from Act 2, Scene 4 of Henry IV part 1 and a brief though important utterance of Henry's final repudiation of Falstaff in Part 2, "I know thee not, old man." The film also uses Falstaff's line "do not, when thou art King, hang a thief" from Henry IV Part 1 but gives it to Bardolph, in order to highlight the poignancy when Henry later has Bardolph executed.
Henry V was made on an estimated budget of $9 million. The film was produced by Bruce Sharman with the British Broadcasting Corporation and Branagh's company Renaissance Films. Principal photography commenced on 31 October 1988 and concluded 19 December the same year. Sixty percent of production was shot on sound stages at Shepperton Studios, while many of the battle sequences were shot on fields adjacent to the Shepperton complex.
Branagh's film is frequently compared with the 1944 film of the play directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. The visual style of Branagh's film is grittier and more realistic than that of Olivier's. For example, his film avoids Olivier's use of stylized sets, and, where Olivier staged the Battle of Agincourt on a sunlit field, Branagh's takes place amid rain-drenched mud and gore. Nearly all of the scenes involving the comic characters were also staged as drama, rather than in the broad, more slapstick way in which Olivier staged them, because Branagh felt that modern audiences would not see the humour in these scenes.
While the text of the Chorus' monologues are the same, the setting for them has been adapted to reflect the nature of the motion picture adaptation of the play. Unlike the other performers, who are dressed in clothing contemporary to the actual Henry V to reflect their characters, the Chorus is dressed in modern 20th century clothing. The opening monologue, originally written to compensate for the limitations of on stage theater to represent the historical scenes presented, is delivered on an empty motion picture sound stage with unfinished sets. The other chorus monologues are delivered on location where the relevant action is taking place. In all cases, the chorus speaks directly to the camera, addressing the audience.
The score to Henry V was written by then first-time film composer Patrick Doyle. It was performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Simon Rattle. The soundtrack was released 8 November 1989 through EMI Classics and features fifteen tracks of score at a running time just under an hour. Patrick Doyle also appeared in Henry V as Court (credited as Pat Doyle), who is the first soldier to begin singing "Non Nobis, Domine" following the conflict at Agincourt.
- "Opening Title/'O! for a Muse of Fire'" (3:34)
- "King Henry V Theme/The Boar's Head" (2:46)
- "The Three Traitors" (2:03)
- "'Now, Lords, for France!'" (2:40)
- "The Death of Falstaff" (1:54)
- "'Once More Unto the Breach'" (3:45)
- "The Threat to the Governor of Harfleur/Katherine of France/The March to Calais" (5:51)
- "The Death of Bardolph" (2:22)
- "'Upon the King'" (4:50)
- "St. Crispin's Day/The Battle of Agincourt" (14:13)
- "'The Day is Yours'" (2:34)
- "'Non Nobis, Domine'" (4:09)
- "The Wooing of Katherine" (2:24)
- "'Let This Acceptance Take'" (2:50)
- "End Title" (2:35)
Doyle was later awarded the 1989 Ivor Novello Award for Best Film Theme for "Non Nobis, Domine".
Online versions of the digitized script and storyboards from the film are part of the Renaissance Theatre Company Archive held at the University of Birmingham.
CBS/Fox Video released a pan and scan VHS edition in 1990 and a widescreen laserdisc edition in 1991. MGM Home Entertainment later released Henry V on DVD 18 July 2000, also preserving the widescreen format of the original theatrical presentation. The film was released on Blu-ray on 27 January 2015.
Henry V received near-universal critical acclaim for Branagh's Oscar-nominated performance and direction, for the accessibility of its Shakespearean language, and for its score by Patrick Doyle. It currently holds a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metacritic score of 83 out of 100, based on 17 reviews—all positive. Henry V also ranks #1 on the Rotten Tomatoes list of Greatest Shakespeare Movies, beating Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) and Branagh's own version of Hamlet (1996), respectively ranking in second and third place.
Roger Ebert, noted critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, highly praising Branagh's performance and writing, "There is no more stirring summons to arms in all of literature than Henry's speech to his troops on St. Crispan's Day, ending with the lyrical 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.' To deliver this speech successfully is to pass the acid test for anyone daring to perform the role of Henry V in public, and as Kenneth Branagh, as Henry, stood up on the dawn of the Battle of Agincourt and delivered the famous words, I was emotionally stirred even though I had heard them many times before. That is one test of a great Shakespearian actor: to take the familiar and make it new." Variety magazine also gave the film a positive review, calling Henry V "A stirring, gritty and enjoyable pic which offers a plethora of fine performances from some of the U.K.'s brightest talents."
The film grossed over $10 million in the U.S. and at the time of its widest release played on 134 U.S. screens.