A Shakespeare Trio, Frice!
By Kristin Battestella
Yes, apparently “frice” is the four that comes after thrice. Who knew save for us as we dive in to another potluck of Bard titans?!
Chimes at Midnight – Orson Welles' (Othello) once obscure 1965 Falstaff opus adapts several Shakespeare plays – mostly Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 with Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor – as Ralph Richardson (The Heiress) narrates the Mortimer tense for John Gielgud's (Julius Caesar) king. Welles' larger than life Falstaff fills the screen, remaining the bright spot in focus at the center of the frame even when speaking over Keith Baxter's (Peeping Tom) shoulder as the foreground Prince Hal. Falstaff looks at the camera directly when looking toward Hal – if he isn't trailing behind him that is, rotund even as the stone castles, distorted angles, and grand interior arches keep the men beneath them small. The taverns, medieval wood works, capes, and period garb are amazing for as strapped as the production was, and the Criterion blu-ray is a restored black and white crisp. Strategic lighting schemes use sunlit rays to grace Henry IV while Prince Hal is near the light but not yet gilded and the challengers remain shadowed. Falstaff steals the show with his own court at Boar's Head, ever embellishing his stake and entertaining Hal with his booming humor. Unfortunately, Falstaff knows the joke will be on him once Hal grows up and takes on the big cross and great crown worn by his venerable father. He's like us, loyal yet cast aside, past his prime, and unable to change, fight, or compete with the king. The Shrewsbury charging horses, swords, maces, and violence are impressively modern, a lengthy battle severing the fun had beforehand with surreal fog, mud, superb music, and handheld pacing reflecting the brutal whirlwind. Hal must fight and kill but instead of robbing Hotspur of his youth, he's lost his own innocence – a loss from which Falstaff tried to protect him. Welles tightens the tender around Falstaff by clarifying his arc across the plays, however this compact focus also rushes everything else. Some editing is messy with quick, unnecessary cuts probably from the production struggles, and Welles' self indulgent portrayal is often over the top and hokey even as it is still relatable – we're meant to see through the windblown no matter how big the belly. Falstaff's a poor old fat guy making himself out to be something else while clinging to his young well connected friends. My gosh, it's just like facebook! If they were such best buds, why should Hal forget him once he becomes king? Was it all really just being used for kicks? We can understand why such a betrayal breaks the fool's heart. One needs to be familiar with these plays, as this is not an introductory piece for a young audience but rather a divisive film between purists not liking the changes and viewers familiar enough with Shakespeare to take a different look. Nonetheless, this is a captivating story of becoming a man and putting away childish things that can be returned to at several stages in life, and Welles' take should be seen at least once for this personal, bridesmaid perspective.
Henry V – A very baby faced Kenneth Branagh (Wallander) makes his much lauded directing debut in this 1989 adaptation alongside Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Brian Blessed (I, Claudius), and a pint sized Christian Bale (Newsies, people!). Brief flashbacks highlighting key moments from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 also feature Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter) as Falstaff while Derek Jacobi (Cadfael) is a modern dressed Chorus – an aware host introducing the stage, behind the camera magic, scenery changes, and onscreen map overlays. Firelight creates a realistic golden scheme matching the medieval robes as court sit downs and devil or angel courtiers sway the French claims. This H.V. is initially soft spoken but won't be mocked, and the woodwork set design aides the characterization as the austere fine patinas at court contrast the worn and shabby Boar's Head framing filled with fun. It is somewhat intrusive to insert Hal's banishment fireside at the tavern upon Falstaff's death when we're supposed to be on the way to Agincourt. However, this friendship lost later anchors the serious Pistol and Bardolph action amid internal revolts and blades at the throat. Henry's court is blue, young, and feisty while France is red and tired with a petulant dauphin compared to the bright sweetness of the French ladies' bemusing English lesson – even as Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction) is obviously not French. These interiors are small, but vivid orange sieges, armored battles, and the horseback Harry rouses upon the breach with an exceptionally epic score from Patrick Doyle (Thor). Dirty, hands on threats and bittersweet executions escalate while the ill English army suffers, and the effortless iambic pace combines with gritty cinematic flair, emphasizing the rah rah despite hangings, tears, rain, and mud. This underdog tale knows when to take a stage action and run with the patriotism as well as when to stay quiet for a commoner versus king interchange. Soliloquies in the calm before the bloodshed are almost directly to the camera, drawing the audience within the moment to ponder the innocent consequences almost with a Jesus at Gethsemane humility against the over confident enemy. The gather round inspiration and on high cheers culminate with the St. Crispin fire and brimstone before superb sound design invokes the charging hoof beats as the camera stays on the fearful English faces standing their ground. Archers' volleys, clashing swords on horseback, bloody slow motion jabs, and slippery one on one combat create a lengthy, well choreographed battle. This story spends most of its time on the taking of France as so glorious – but all the death and youth sacrificed are for what really? The contemporary commentary stews in the quiet win as the dead are tallied, panning across the tired, sad victors and the bloodied children beside them. Stirring Latin laments swell while the camera humbly follows the living carrying the dead home. Granted the play's wooing finale seems odd after such onscreen epicness, but the official paperwork and marital ties seal the patriotic rebirth – which, ironically, we know is cut short. The Chorus gives us a fitting, 'but that is another story' close of the curtain, and although this is too long and bloody for the classroom, it remains a must see for Shakespeare fans and cinephiles alike.
Richard III – Annette Bening (American Beauty), Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), Maggie Smith (Harry Potter), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Dominic West (Centurion) join Ian McKellan (Mr. Holmes) for this 1995 fascist re-imagining of The Bard amid ticker tapes, radios, typewriters, telegraphs, tanks, and gas masks. Though recognizably thirties with swanky cars, cigarettes, jazz, and Art Deco glamour; there's an anachronistic surreal to the fedoras, furs, and noir silhouettes – as if the Imperial and aristocratic ways of footmen and tiaras continued into the jet set unchecked by The Great War or Abdication. This is still old speaketh, but the opening is silent before Richard takes over the microphone with his expected soliloquy – zooms on his mouth indicate double talk and duplicitous plots as he prims in the mirror before addressing the camera directly of his plans. Our disfigured Duke of Gloucester is suave with his thin mustache and decorated uniform but slightly unkempt, gassed, and mad when not putting on his crocodile tears. While the Nazi parallels are obvious, they are more Western gone SS The Man in the High Castle what ifs then actual German motifs. Richard's a Wolsey ear to the ground sowing seeds at Tower of London bunkers or with rooftop pigeons instead of on castle parapets, but the new dressage doesn't overtake the still stage-like one on one tension as each scene lays a piece of the brother against brother plot. Hired killers provide gangster style executions in the bloody bathtub and cracked spectacles in brown anonymous packages as proof of the deed done. The hangings grow darker alongside Richard's dictator glee despite opposing board room committees in their It Can't Happen Here disbelief. Dressing room preparations and laughter after the ruse works join public cheers over the boar's head laurel/fascist pigs logo – seeing the red gloved right hand but not knowing what the pocketed sinistre left is doing. Richard talks to us while he's watching the film reel of his coronation, seemingly letting the viewer in on the vanity. We don't like him but there's no getting off this armored train whether it goes too far or not. Tap to the king's tune and things are grand, but misstep and.... Fortunately, Richard also has to lie in the bed he made – with night sweats, regrets, and just do. Given our current administration and political climate, I'm probably looking at this differently then I would have two years ago. However, such reassessment proves how provocative Shakespeare still is even outfitted with machine guns, power stations, airplanes, and horses not there when you need them. Although the sound is uneven between soft voices and loud effects, this deserves several viewings for the visual symbolism and layered subtext – a complex parable within a tale of Billy quotes, the period piece commentary, and the pressure cooker of it all then and now. This weighted interpretation may be confusing for those new to the play, perhaps keeping the more medieval clear Olivier version as the introduction piece, but there's nothing wrong with this picture save a surprisingly elusive video release.
Hee, these are alphabetical, chronological, and in play order. Huzzah!