The Black Hawk Down of the Battle of Agincourt: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V

Okay, New Release Summer has officially come to an end.  Not that A Return To Salem's Lot was the last new release you're going to see featured on this site or anything so dramatic - I've already got some exciting stuff pre-ordered - but I've also got interesting back catalog titles I'm dying to address backing up and spilling over.  I even went and hooked my laserdisc player back up to my 'puter for this one.  I'm fired up; let's gooOoo!
1989's Henry V is... sort of Kenneth Branagh's feature debut, and... sort of the first of his prestigious Shakespeare adaptations.  He'd been a member of The Royal Shakespeare Academy for almost a decade, and in 1988, his production (which he directed but does not appear in) of Twelfth Night was filmed for British television.  It's far flatter and more theatrical than this, which makes a point of being as vibrant and dynamic as possible; but it's more than just a static camera pointed at a stage.  It's not one of those, and it is available on DVD if you're an enthusiast.  But this is a movie made for broad, mainstream audiences, even the people who hear "high school homework" whenever Shakespeare's name is uttered.  Big action scenes... dramatic lighting... bombastic music... violence!  The Black Hawk Down of the Battle of Agincourt.
But he was also determined to bring authentic Shakespeare to the masses: to produce it all in the original language, as opposed to the typically modernized vernacular in Hollywood adaptations.  Which is not to say that there were no liberties taken.  The screenplay edits things to be a little more palatable to first timers, and he inserts a few quick lines and bits from Henry IV, which mostly serve to make the clarify some of the plot points and motivations to newcomers.  Olivier did similar things with his version of Henry V; and both wound up with several Oscar noms and lasting critical acclaim.  This determination did, however, also result in a faithful, extended epilogue (no spoilers!) that mainstream audiences not used to the stage play surely find downright baffling in its implausibility.
But at that point, I guess it didn't matter.  He'd succeeded in impressing film-goers with his grandiose production values, and impeccable cast.  Besides taking on the role of King Henry himself, he called in a whole murderer's row of exceptional English actors, most of whom would effectively become his stock players, including Emma Thompson (who also married Branagh in '89), I, Claudis himself, Derek Jacobi, Paul Scofield, the delightful Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane and a young Christian Bale.  It's a hell of a production.  It's not one of my favorite plays - partly, I think, because it doesn't fully stand on its own; without the previous Henry plays, it feels a little shallow - but you can see why it would be a great one to come out of the gate with.  It's a massive battle scene with one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, and a lot of great supporting characters.  And Branagh nails all of those elements perfectly.
CBS Fox released Henry V on laserdisc back in 1991, and there's a reason I'm calling up the old laser here, which I'll get into a little further on.  Suffice to say, it still hasn't been fully rendered obsolete by modern DVD and BD releases.  And there have been both.  In the US, it was released on DVD by MGM in 2000, and on blu by Shout Factory in 2015.  Visually, it's a steady progression.

Oh, and it's been a long time since I've posted any laserdisc shots, so I'll open the comparisons with the old disclaimer: laserdiscs are analog, and therefor imported through a converter, as opposed to digital discs, which can be ripped directly into the PC. That means there can be a little signal loss from the laser to these screenshots, though I'd say it's always pretty close to how they look on my TV (which, after all, takes the same composite cable journey from the player).  I'd say the contrast is a little higher, but you pretty well get the picture.
1) 1999 CBS Fox LD; 2) 2000 MGM DVD; 3) 2015 Shout Factory BD.
So, the story starts out with an aspect ratio shift, from, according to their back covers, 1.66:1 to 1.85:1.  Precisely measured, it's more like 1.61:1 to 1.81:1 on the DVD and then 1.85:1 on the blu.  That basically means the laser shows more along the top and bottom, though it loses a tad along the right.  And the blu reveals just teensy slivers more along the edges than the DVD, but the difference mostly just comes from correcting a slight pinch.  Colors and shadows are fairly consistent, with the laser looking a bit pale even if you account for the contrast you see in these shots getting a boost.  The BD reveals a little more nuance than the DVD, and also has finer detail.  The laser has a dupey softness, and each generation benefits from the enhanced resolution.  The BD's still a little soft, and grain is light, suggesting a decent but older master.  None of the discs suggest any unwanted tinkering, i.e. DNR, sharpening effects, etc., and they all display minor, sporadic dirt and print damage.  The DVD is anamorphic and there are no interlacing troubles.  Essentially, it was a perfectly solid DVD for its time; and the blu is alright, though a fresh scan would've been very welcome.

All three discs have the original stereo mix in Dolby, with the blu bumping it up to DTS-HD. The laser has no proper subtitles but includes English captions, while the DVD only has French and Spanish subtitles.  The blu drops those foreign options, but adds English HoH subtitles.
It's definitely been worth the upgrade each time.  But here's why the laserdisc is still worth hanging on to, or tracking down if you haven't got it: a making of documentary called A Little Touch of Harry.  Now, it's not feature-length, Lord Of the Rings "appendices"-level coverage.  It runs just over half an hour, but it's a lot better than your standard promotional featurette.  Narrated by Judi Dench, it's full of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, without a lot of the usual padding.  It's quite good, and has been curiously and frustratingly dropped from all subsequent releases (not just the ones covered here, but all foreign editions as well... I've looked into it).  And in its place?  Nothing.  So it's a serious loss.

The laserdisc also has the trailer, which the DVD and BD retain, but that's it.  The laser came in a stylish gatefold cover and the DVD had a little insert with notes.  But the only important extra is trapped on the old laserdisc.
So this is a great film.  People have griped about the blu since it came out, and I wouldn't say they're wrong.  Single layer disc, barebones, and a fresh scan really would've made a nice difference.  But it is worth upgrading from the DVD.  But yeah, this is one of those cases where, frustratingly, you still can't let go of your laserdisc either.  It would've been great if Shout budgeted higher for this title and really given it the treatment it deserved, but oh well.  At least between the blu and the laser you can compile a fairly respectable edition, which is still more than you can say for many films.

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