The Adventures of Falstaff: ‘Chimes at Midnight’ Review

Posted in Screening Room by - July 19, 2016

Chimes at Midnight is an unusual adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, as it combines several of his plays by using the character of Falstaff as its main connecting point. The overall focus of the story is Falstaff’s father-son (in a manner of speaking) relationship with Prince Hal, who conflicts between his allegiance to his father King Henry IV and his loyalty for Falstaff. 
This movie is a beautiful work of art in the simplest form. As an adaptation, it works wonders as only those who are the expert in Shakespeare might notice the combination of dialogue and plot points from various plays. But even those who see the adaptation process are unlikely to be unbothered by it as a writer, director, and star Orson Welles has crafted a fluid and moving the character-driven film. 

Orson Welles gives a fantastic performance as Falstaff. He speaks the Shakespearean dialogue as a natural but delivers a character that at once is flawed but also incredibly charismatic and sympathetic. Welles navigates the nuances of his character with tenderness. It’s an expressive, fun performance. The rest of the cast does well, notably Keith Baxter as Prince Hal, who gets the most mileage out of the film since he has to interact so much with Falstaff. Baxter quietly and effectively expresses the inner conflict he faces in the relationship between his father and Falstaff.  But Welles as usual, allows everyone in his cast to shine. 

As with a lot of other films by Welles, his directing here is top-notch. His use of deep-focus cinematography, odd camera angles, and dynamic cuts spice-up the filmmaking in ways that were unusual for the time. So surprising that the film is said to have struggled to have its sound fully in sync during the editing and restoration process, something I did notice watching the copy I was able to acquire of the film. But the rest of the technical aspects and the film itself are so immersive that one can only find those mistakes by really looking for them. The highlight of the movie is the Battle of Shrewsbury; an impressive set-piece that rivals the CGI battles we now know in modern filmmaking. It even surpasses a few of these for sheer realism and creativity. It truly does feel like one of the better battle scenes from more recent films. 

The movie also succeeds in other aspects such as production and costume design. It all feels very real and authentic. The use of space and closed-quarters give it an intimate and lived-in feeling.  Welles has created a film that honors Shakespeare’s work and provides us with a warm, moving tale with humor and even bloodshed that has come to exemplify why Welles was not only a great filmmaker but also a great actor. Chimes at Midnight is an achievement that only feels minor because the movie is uninterested in its ambitions, and instead goes straight to the heart of the characters. Shakespeare himself would be proud. 

Final Say: Watch It

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