Before King Charles ascended to the throne of England, he spoke candidly to Kenneth Branagh about his life as the heir apparent, offering insight as the young actor prepared to direct and star in William Shakespeare’s Henry V. The royal connection, however, ran deeper than their nobility lineage, as the 15th-century monarch was also the first to wear Charles’ previous title, The Prince of Wales.
Speaking with ET in 1989, Branagh explained the backstory of how then-Prince Charles became an unofficial advisor on the movie adaptation, which brought the play’s oft-quoted sonnets — including the rallying cry at the Siege of Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”) and the St. Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) — to its largest audience yet on the big screen.
“When I think about the royal family, I think [Charles] is a genuine, genuine man,” Branagh observed. “What he carries around is an amazing sense of weight and purpose. And melancholy, as well.”
He clarified, “Not sadness, particularly. Melancholy. A kind of wisdom that’s to do with separation and isolation.”
Ahead of production, Branagh told a friend that he was struggling to tap into a royal’s mindset. “I was going on about this one day to a friend of mine, who I wasn’t aware knew a friend of Prince Charles,” Branagh recalled. “A meeting was set up for me to have a chance to talk about this,” adding, “I was just interested in those areas of his experience that I didn’t know anything about.”
“I talked through those areas of Henry that I was keen to present, and just wanted any comment that he might have,” Branagh said. “But, then, his regal isolation was something I wanted to find out about.”
Set in the backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War, the play also emphasizes the battle waging inside Henry, as he shoulders an unsympathetic yet, nevertheless, crushing moral burden of ruling the commonwealth. According to Branagh, who had already portrayed the role on stage in 1985 for the Royal Shakespeare Company, his meeting with Charles confirmed that keeping calm and carrying on amid inner anguish was still part of the royal deal six centuries later.
“I took away this sense of what I sensed Henry was about, which was someone who took their job incredibly seriously, and was not priggish or self-righteous,” he laid out. “Someone who was trying to strike this balance between a compassionate way of life, but, nevertheless, being in the public eye.”
At one point in Henry V, the king pretends to be a normal soldier on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, seeking honest opinions from the troops about his leadership. The experience, as it turned out, Charles related to — albeit with the much lower stakes of being a university student.
“Like Henry V, he explained to me that he had tried going into disguise at one stage in his life when he was at Cambridge, in order to try and have some direct contact with the common man or woman,” Branagh said. “Which, as Henry finds, was deeply frustrating because you can’t have the conversation you would have if you were being yourself.”
“And if you reveal yourself to be who you are, then they start talking to you in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise do because they’re intimidating or frightened,” he continued. “And just like Henry V, I think that he’s had to face the fact that people don’t necessarily want to understand or sympathize with how he feels. And I think loneliness is part of the job. That’s something that you have to take on board and balance out with all the good that you can do and that he tries to do.”
Branagh’s adaptation, which also starred his then-wife Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane and 15-year-old Christian Bale, proved to be an unexpected critical hit. The film also nabbed 27-year-old Branagh his first two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Director, cementing him as Hollywood’s go-to adapter of literary classics (later came Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Branagh revisited Henry V in 2018, delivering the opening monologue at the beginning of His Majesty’s 70th birthday gala.
Back in 1989, Branagh noted that while Charles may not have had “direct political power” at the time, he recognized the “extraordinary amount of influence” the prince “wields very carefully.”
“It’s a kind of under-the-skin gravitas that I felt. ‘Oh, yes. There are people like this,'” Branagh said. “I mean, maybe in America people felt this about somebody like Kennedy, who had one foot in the dirty world of politics, and he had one foot in the larger world — [and] was inspiring people and seemed genuine.”
“There are few political leaders that one can feel that about,” he figured. “And I think it’s a classic question imposed by Shakespeare in the play about the nature of leadership and heroism. What makes a hero?”
Henry V streams on Prime Video via ScreenPix.
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