May 25, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Orson Welles in Falstaff/ Chimes at Midnight (1965)

It's almost comforting to watch Orson Welles play the title character in Falstaff/ Chimes at Midnight (1965), because he seems so happily at home. The director called it his favorite film, a sentiment that wasn't shared by critics upon its release, but which has changed in the years since. In a new restoration, it is possible to fully appreciate the beauty and madness of Welles' passion project.

The concept for the film began as the 1939 stage play Five Kings, which was written by Welles. He drew parts from Shakespeare's Richard III and Henry IV, V, and VI into one show. That first try was a disaster, as was a 1960 revival, but Orson was determined to produce this ultimate expression of his love for Shakespeare, and his favorite character Sir John Falstaff. Long scorned by Hollywood, he managed to cobble together a Spanish/Swiss production. Given the battle it took to fund and film it's astonishing how beautifully-executed and powerfully acted it is.

Welles had a great sense for how the language of Shakespeare should be presented, alternating between busy tableaux with lots of movement and chatter and the stillness of quiet monologue. He sets his more populated scenes in impeccably designed surroundings, all worn beams and hanging bunches of herbs. He stages extras high and low, and deep in the frame, always keeping the visuals lively. The monologues are stark by comparison, shot in intimate close-ups, with moody lighting reminiscent of an alley scene in a film noir.

As Henry IV, John Gielgud gets the best of that one-on-one attention. I don't think I fully appreciated this actor before I saw him here. Finally I understand how mesmerizing he could be. Though he speaks with passion, there's never the feeling that he is out of control. Even a shot of the back of his neck can bring chills, as you realize his every movement is shot through with power, but carefully calibrated. When he's onscreen, it's impossible to look away.

Playing son of Henry IV Prince Hal, Welsh actor Keith Baxter looks a bit like Anthony Perkins, even possessing some of his youthful tension, which works well for the conflicted character. He shifts believably from playboy cad to imposing royal. You can see the threads of his past within him though; he is never quite to be trusted.

This is essentially a man's world on display, so Jeanne Moreau has little to do as Doll Tearsheet. She doesn't need much to command attention though. In a role like this, you wonder how much further she could have gone as an actress in English language productions.

While I was blindsided by Gielgud, this film is still essentially Welles' playground. He somewhat tamps down the humorous aspects of Falstaff, but there's always a bit of a twinkle to him. It is clear that the character is home to him, the role for which he has the most affection. When looking at his enormous size, it's hard to believe the actor actually had to lose weight to play the part.

Juxtaposed with the alternating merry and elegant tone of the rest of the film, an extended battle scene comes as a bit of a shock. It is shot to show the chaos of war as it directly affects the bodies of soldiers. The charging motion of arms and legs are set off against bodies submerged in mud, and larger vistas are abruptly switched to close-ups of gushing wounds and falling men. It's a bloody spectacle in the midst of another, more civilized demonstration, but you sense the same game is being played.

Chimes at Midnight will return to SIFF Cinemas for a regular engagement once the festival is over. It's well worth a watch for fans of Shakespeare on film and the featured actors. For Welles lovers it's a must see.

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