Tuesday, 26 July 2016

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "Chimes at Midnight" (1965).

Orson Welles once declared the character of Falstaff as "Shakespeare's greatest creation", a character from the classic film Chimes at Midnight (otherwise known as Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight))This Shakespearian drama film directed by and starring Welles; based on William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Raphael Holinshed's Holinshed's Chronicles. The film centres on Sir John Falstaff, the hero in this compilation of extracts from Shakespeare's five plays, made into a connected story of Falstaff's career as young Prince Hal's drinking companion. The massive knight roisters with and without the prince, philosophizes comically, goes to war (in his own fashion), and meets his final disappointment, set in a real-looking late-medieval England.

Welles said that the core of the film's story was "the betrayal of friendship." The script contains text from five of Shakespeare's plays; primarily Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, but also Richard II, Henry V, and used some dialogue from The Merry Wives of Windsor. The narration by Sir Ralph Richardson was taken from Holinshed's Chronicles. Welles's inspiration for Chimes at Midnight began in 1930 when he was a student at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. Welles tried to stage a three-and-a-half-hour combination of several of Shakespeare's historical plays called The Winter of Our Discontent in which he played Richard III. School officials forced him to make cuts to the production. Welles then produced a Broadway stage adaptation of nine Shakespeare plays called Five Kings in 1939. In 1960, he revived this project in Ireland as Chimes at Midnight, which was his final on-stage performance. Neither of these plays was successful, but Welles considered portraying Falstaff to be his life's ambition and turned the project into a film. Throughout its production, Welles struggled to find financing and at one point, to get money, he lied to producer Emiliano Piedra about intending to make a version of Treasure Island. Welles shot the film throughout Spain between 1964 and 1965, and premiered it at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, where it won two awards. Initially dismissed by most film critics, Chimes at Midnight is now regarded as one of Welles' highest achievements, and Welles himself called it his best work.

The film stars Welles as Falstaff, Keith Baxter as Prince Hal, John Gielgud as Henry IV, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly. The ensemble gave terrific and viscerally intense performances thanks to Welles' unquestionably brilliant vision and direction.

Chimes at Midnight is a haunting and eccentric piece of work that was hampered by budget constraints, but Welles delivers both behind and in front of the camera. With his peculiar mixture of Shakespeare's and Holinshed's texts maybe be a ragged text to us all, but Welles's genius never fails to impress. As Shakespearean scholar Kenneth S. Rothwell commented: "Welles goes beyond mere tinkering with Shakespeare's scenes; [he] massively reworks, transposes, revises and deletes, indeed reconstructs them." He does indeed.

Simon says Chimes at Midnight receives:

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