1965; adapted and directed by Orson Welles; 116 mins
“Come! Sing me a bawdy song!”- Jack Falstaff
I assume this quote is the first thing that Orson Welles heard in his head when he conceived this dirty limerick of an ode to Shakespeare, centering on the supporting character of Sir John (“Jack”) Falstaff (Welles), an old, fat, penniless, partying knight who leads many astray. This film makes you wonder if Shakespeare’s works would’ve survived had they not been so popular because it, more than most others, strips away the worthiness and lays bare the salacious underside of his pulp plays. Maybe he survives because he was good at getting the beers in…
So, Chimes at Midnight (as it is advertised everywhere but the title in the film is Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight) is not a straight adaptation of any one play, it’s mostly culled from Henry IV Parts I & II but also takes in elements of Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What elements? I know not. I am not a Shakespeare officianado. Suffice to say, because King Henry (John Gielgud) is considered responsible for the death of his predecessor, Richard II and is in no hurry to save the true heir, Edmund Mortimer, from Welsh rebels, dissent is bred amongst his enemies – chiefly, the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester and Harry Hotspur, son to Northumberland. All this, however, is second to the main story which is Falstaff’s relationship with Prince Harry (soon to be Henry V, played by Keith Baxter), leading him around the taverns and brothels of England, thieving, partying and shagging while war looms over the realm.
It is a lot to do with Harry’s decision about whether he should better support his severe father, the King or carry on with his naughty ‘uncle’, Falstaff and be more a man of the people. Falstaff may be a nobleman but he is proud captain to his own ship of fools – the ship being his favourite tavern and the fools, his men-at-arms, local women and his landlady. Welles does a great job as a bear of a man you’d feel safe around, an old man who will die not when he leaves this life but this life leaves him. It’s no vanity project either, Welles makes plenty of jokes at the expense of his own looks, age and weight.
John Gielgud was one of those classical actors who got kudos no matter what he did, which makes me somewhat circumspect about heaping praise but actually, it’s perfect casting. Gielgud is so formal and aloof as Henry IV that as soon as he enters a scene, he counterbalances all the lunacy going on elsewhere. So, when, in his last days, he delivers the “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” speech, the extended close-up given him really ekes out all the emotional torture of the man and in one fell swoop you really reach for this terrible monarch.
I dunno about you but I’m not someone who gets Shakespeare’s language word for word but I can understand the general gist of it. Here, though, the dialogue comes thick and fast and compounded by an older, less-than-swish soundtrack (I’m pretty sure we weren’t watching the 2016 print), it’s a bit of a bugger to catch up with. It seemed to me, though, that Welles must have been aware of this because the cinematic language he employs does a lot of the storytelling work so it is very much a film that plays to the stalls, entirely in keeping with it’s central character. Lighting and cinematography are utilised brilliantly to make the audience aware of the moods we are shifting between. Scenes with the King are more locked off and stately, whereas, the unpredictable Falstaff’s scenes whirl around rooms and streets with abandon. However, the Shakespearean oaths are loud and clear; “Thou knotty-pated fool!” “Thou whoreson, obscene greasy tallow-catch!” “You Prince of Wales!”
Edmond Richard‘s lighting is stunning, particularly the scenes at court with mighty shafts of sunlight ploughing through windows, traversing the castle walls and many clever tricks of perspective making this low budget independent feature look enormous (particularly the incredible mudbath that is The Battle of Shrewsbury)! It’s a film that has stains aswell; no background is without erosion, dirt, mould or spilled fluids. Angelo Francesco Lavagnino‘s music is entirely in keeping with the ribald mood but also anticipating the hangover of growing up.
In the end, it’s fun. Which is not something I’ve been able to say previously of either Orson Welles’ films or , to an extent, Shakespeare adaptations.