“Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
‘Chimes at Midnight’, directed by Orson Welles in 1965, is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, focusing on the life and misadventures of Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff, played Welles, spends his days in a London tavern getting drunk, sleeping with prostitutes and developing money making schemes. He is friends with Prince Hal, the son and heir to Henry IV. Hal finds himself conflicted by the demands of his royal duties and the lure of the hedonistic world of Falstaff and, after a challenge to the throne and the subsequent death of his father, he is forced to choose once and for all. The source material is a rich, deeply layered and brilliantly funny and Welles’ adaptation cherry-picks the best moments. Falstaff is clearly the lead character in the plays, but Welles’ choice of scenes and condensation of plot brings this to the fore – and this is all to the good. What he creates is a bawdy vision of medieval England, but one that, much like Tarkovsky did later with ‘Andrei Rublev’ or František Vláčil achieved with ‘Marketa Lazarová‘, is fully immersive. Unlike ‘Citizen Kane’, here he avoids excessive camera trickery, and the effect is almost neorealist: the sets are cavernous and authentic particular the royal castle in which John Gielgud sits, dwarfed by his surroundings as Henry IV or the barn-like tavern. Welles seems to draw more on European (or even eastern European) cinema when creating the chilly visual identity of the movie. Highlights are difficult to untangle from the best bits of the plays, but the conversation between Justice Shallow and Falstaff, the scenes of Falstaff and Hal playing king and the final scene of Falstaff rejected by his protégé stand out. It’s a rich, beautiful and, at an hour and a half, a digestible adaption of the original. It’s funny, sad, pacey and poignant.
Would I recommend it? Yes – but I’d also recommend Roger Allam in the Globe version of the two plays, available (for a price) on DVD. They’re also fantastic, authentic but subversive at the same time.