Sep. 17th, 2012

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Being a fan of Shakespeare's Henriad, and of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in general, I was looking forward to seeing Orson Wells' Falstaff -- Chimes at Midnight. It was a disappointment.

The film is a retelling, mainly (entirely?) in reassemblies of the original text of Henry IV Parts I and II, with parts of Richard II and Henry V thrown in, and told from the perspective of Falstaff played by Wells himself.

There were powerful moments in the film, but they were written by Shakespeare: uneasy lies the head; I do / I will; I know thee not, old man; What is that word, honour? In between seem to hang vague, flabby bits, cobbled together from scraps in the plays, with a never particularly mirthful Falstaff enacting half-hearted Benny Hill sequences or morosely boring us at the inn. Overall the effect is a little like a "clip-show" where a cheap episode of a drama is made from some low-quality contemplative conceit interposed with extra footage from other episodes.

I find it hard to know what you might get from this film that you wouldn't get from watching a good production of the Henriad or even just one of those plays.

It's certainly no more accessible than the original. The language isn't helped by largely understated (film-y) delivery from the cast (other than Wells and Gielgud, who is excellent as Bolingbroke). And the production is set in that strange, Douglas Fairbanks era, alternative Hollywood reality where nylon, polyester, and elastic tape were invented some time in the eleventh century.

Falstaff is altogether too present. Shakespeare's most interesting characters -- Feste, Miranda, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Malvolio, Ophelia and, I think, Falstaff -- have an oddly liminal existence where they are very much on screen for events, but seem to execute their monologues and have their existential crises just off the stage out of view. It often seems like there's a much more interesting play going on next door, to which you are rightly not invited. Rightly because it seems to me that's the point: you're supposed to think about these people and imagine pasts, presents, and futures. The problem of who they are is supposed to occupy you. The desire to consolidate and linearise Falstaff seems to me to be akin to the desire to know how magic tricks are done: magic is done by you not knowing how it is done.

On the plus side, the battle of Shrewsbury scene is pretty much everything it's cracked up to be.

Just go see Henry IV Part I instead. If you like it see Part II. If you want to find out more about Shakespeare's intriguingly half-absent characters go see something creative around them like Hamletmaschine, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Propspero's Books or read the Prospero's Daughter trilogy. Don't bother with this clip show.


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