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Shakespeare 400 - Chimes At Midnight

Part of Shakespeare 400 On Screen, presented in association with the University of Ottawa

Shakespeare 400The great Orson Welles had a lifelong fascination with Sir John Falstaff, a recurring character in Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad’ (the cycle of plays that includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V). The childhood friend of Prince Hal (who goes on to become Henry V), Falstaff is an overweight and often buffoonish knight, generally viewed as a figure of comic relief.

Poster for re-issue of Chimes At MidnightIn Chimes At Midnight, Falstaff (played by Welles himself) is the beating, broken heart of an imaginative riff on the plays of the Henriad. Shakespeare’s golden hero Henry is eclipsed by Falstaff (sometimes quite literally, as Falstaff’s capacious shadow looms over him), a tragic figure whose unwavering loyalty is, ultimately, rewarded with betrayal.

The contrast with Laurence Olivier’s glorious, Technicolor Henry V from a generation earlier is both marked and intentional, particularly in the two films’ depiction of war. Chimes At Midnight employs the techniques of cinematic expressionism to capture the inner turmoil of a man at the breaking point, its montages and juxtapositions at times leading to chaos and confusion, most effectively in the film’s grim battle scenes. The moody black and white cinematography allows for extensive manipulation of shadow and light, while narrated passages from the Holinshed Chronicles (a 16th-century work used by Shakespeare when writing his history plays) cast another kind of shadow on the contrasting images of desolation and loss.

Chimes at Midnight is a masterpiece which probes some of the darker themes that colour Shakespeare’s history plays.

– Kathryn Prince, University of Ottawa

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