A masterful work of singular vision, where five Shakespeare plays are adapted and reworked to construct a breathtakingly powerful work of cinema shining light on a nuanced take of a character Welles felt a powerful, deep, resonant connection with.
The writing alone is magnificent, with the skill behind the arrangement of various scenes and lines from “Richard II”, “Henry IV, Part 1”, “Henry IV, Part 2”, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry V” into a coherent narrative focusing on Falstaff, his relationship with Prince Hal, and the betrayal of friendship between them a truly impressive feat. The way disparate lines from separate plays are arranged in sequence is so seamless that it seems effortless, but Welles no doubt committed a massive amount of time and effort to paring down the five plays into this coherent, structured take.
The writing isn’t the most impressive part of the film. Nor is the acting, even though Welles gives a heartfelt, nuanced, and creative take on Falstaff. No, the unique cinematic aspects are by far the greatest triumph here. The Battle of Shrewsbury is an unforgettable, horrifying, endless display of the realities (or, rather, the horrors) of violence, battle, war, conflict. It’s no wonder it’s been so hugely influential in cinema since. For a film so reliant on the timeless language of Shakespeare’s, this wordless sequence manages to skilfully and emotionally communicate complex thematics around the nature of warfare, chivalry, and the shared mental construction of the essentially fantastical “Merrie England”.
So many shots in the film could be frozen and appreciated purely from a formalist perspective for their composition, as Welles’ fascination in (and skill with) deep focus, chiaroscuro, and creative framing result in countless striking images that serve both as powerful and evocative displays in their own right, and creative and meaningful acts of storytelling in the context of the film. So many shots of Hal find some contextual excuse to have him put his back to Falstaff, but still frame Falstaff in the same focus as Hal, allowing the audience to view Falstaff’s changing facial expressions as he hears Hal’s many thoughts, excuses, and plans. The staging of such scenes brings greater and meaning and power to Welles’ original take on Hal’s famous confrontation with Falstaff, as Welles’ acting, his facial expression after Hal finishes his great rebuke, makes so much more sense after the audience having seen Welles communicate Falstaff’s inner feelings about Hal’s development and destiny earlier on.
The writing, the cinematography, the performances – any of these alone would make for a great film. Together, they make for a masterful one. I give the film five cups of sack, and a splatter of mud.