NEW YORK — KENNETH BRANAGH is an ambitious young artist. Walking in the footsteps of no less a legend than Laurence Olivier, who tackled the same challenge back in 1944, this 28-year-old filmmaker has written, directed, and starred in a new movie version of ``Henry V,'' determined to give Shakespeare's great play a vigorous new interpretation for the '80s. The result of his effort has dignity, intelligence, and moments of considerable power. But it remains too cautious, too deliberate, too polite for its own good. Those who relish any competent rendering of Shakespeare will surely be pleased with it. Those looking for a new and exciting perspective will just as surely be disappointed.
The most important problem of the new ``Henry V'' is Mr. Branagh's failure to dig deeply into the hero's psychology. In production notes for the movie, Branaugh compares his vision with Olivier's in a number of areas, stressing the idea that Olivier saw the play as a ``hymn to England,'' while he himself sees it as a study of ``a young monarch burdened with guilt'' because of circumstances arising from his father's seizure of power. That's a promising approach to the drama. Branagh is right that the world of 1944, torn to pieces by World War II, was different from today's world in ways that make Olivier's heroic ``Henry V'' seem dated in some important respects.
Branagh has not replaced that heroicism with compelling new qualities, however. His wish to explore Henry's mind as well as his deeds and to display a heroism that's ``spiritual as well as physical'' remains more an aspiration than an accomplishment. Branagh also fails to show judicious detachment from the play's rousing celebration of militarism, an aspect of the drama that's better treated as a historical relic than a vital component of its current worth.
Not that Branagh's movie is lacking in all interest. His performance in the title role has moments of verve and energy. Derek Jacobi, in modern dress to signify a ``Brechtian'' approach, brings real fire to the Chorus's appearances. And the cast is peppered with experienced Shakespeareans: Paul Scofield as the French King, Ian Holm as Fluellen, and Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly, to name the most prominent. Kenneth MacMillan's cinematography has an effectively dark aura that's daringly different from Olivier's hugely colorful treatment, and Simon Rattle's music score has its moments.
This said, however, it must also be noted that Branagh has nothing up his sleeve to compete with Olivier's inspiration in giving ``Henry V'' a creatively cinematic structure, beginning the action at the Globe Theatre and later opening it into the real world. And the battle at the climax of the tale, which clearly took a great deal of Branagh's energy, seems overlong and underinspired - especially in contrast to Orson Welles's chilling battlefield scenes in ``Falstaff.''
In his notes to the production, Branagh says he wanted to make a ``Henry V'' that would satisfy Shakespearean scholars and filmgoers who admire such lightweight entertainment pictures as ``Crocodile Dundee'' and its ilk. I suspect both groups will find things to like and dislike in his movie, but that neither will be wholly satisfied by it. It's a respectable attempt, not an exciting one.