Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight - DVD Review

'Falstaff is reportedly the role Welles aspired to play throughout his career, and his fervour for and obsession with Shakespeare's unmistakeable character comes through in every single moment of the actor's flawless turn'

Alongside Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, Orson Welles is one of the 20th Century's great filmmakers who was born to put Shakespeare on the big screen. Whether you consider his 1965 film Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight to be the best of Welles' Shakespearean works or not, it's a film that it's hard not to be immensely impressed by, and one that's even harder to fault.

As a cinematic achievement, Chimes At Midnight is nothing short of stupendous. Adapted from Welles' stage production of the same name, the director and actor sets himself the Herculean task of carving the story of Sir John Falstaff (Welles) from no less than five of Shakespeare's plays, with particular focus on Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. It's a monumental undertaking from which most filmmakers would surely recoil, but which Welles takes on with aplomb. That the film was made on a relatively small budget of around $800,000 US only makes the director's achievement all the more astounding.

Crafting elements from a quintet of Shakespearean works into a two hour film may sound like an near-impossible task, but Welles makes his cinematic miracle seem easy. There are characters and plot points here and there which unsurprisingly feel trimmed down from their original form, but never to the point of detracting from the overall film. Everything that is here feels worthwhile, blended together superbly from Shakespeare's timeless source texts to chronicle the ups and downs of Falstaff's relationship with Hal (Keith Baxter), the wayward Prince Of Wales, who later becomes King Henry V.

The performances of Welles' cast are faultless, with particular stand-out turns coming from renowned Shakespearean actor John Gielgud as King Henry IV and Baxter as Prince Hal. The star throughout Chimes At Midnight, however, is without question Welles himself. Falstaff is reportedly the role Welles aspired to play throughout his career, and his fervour for and obsession with Shakespeare's unmistakeable character comes through in every single moment of the actor's flawless turn.

The actor embodies Falstaff entirely, with Welles bringing to life his drunken anarchic roistering just as well as he does his poignantly impassioned scenes. There are even echoes of some of the Bard's other creations to be found, such as in Welles' facial expressions channelling Lear during the final scenes. It's a Shakespearean performance for the ages, setting the bar by which all other screen Falstaffs will surely continue to be measured long into the future.

Welles' extraordinary skill as a director is also clear to see throughout Chimes At Midnight. His choice of shooting angles and framing is regularly breathtaking, with the camera used from perhaps every possible position to gain the unique look and feel of the film throughout. Scenes in Henry IV's castle are opressive and isolating; anything at the Boar's Head Tavern discombobulating and frenetic; and the scenes of the Battle of Shrewsbury at the film's centre jaw-droppingly brutal and chaotic.

Chimes At Midnight is the film Welles himself claimed was his favourite amongst his own works, above other Shakespearean adaptations of Macbeth and Othello and even what is considered by many to be the director's defining work, Citizen Kane. Whether or not it ranks as your number one Welles film, or your top Shakespearean film adaptation, Chimes At Midnight is undoubtedly a cinematic masterpiece outstanding in both achievement and execution.




Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight is released on newly restored 50th Anniversary UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 29th June 2015.


By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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