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`Banish plump Jack and banish all the world`
on 19 February 2014
This sparkling print courtesy of Mr Bongo in its original evocative black & white allows us to see, despite its minor flaws, a masterpiece, and arguably the greatest Shakespeare film ever made.
Being an Orson Welles film, it was made in Spain, with an unlikely eclectic cast from various countries, makes eloquent use of the means available to him, but displays a remarkably close fidelity to both the letter and spirit of the Shakespeare plays Welles has mined for the golden experience this film offers.
I have never seen a more rounded (pun intended) Falstaff as that of Welles. When he played Rochester in the forties Jane Eyre for example, we only saw one or two aspects of the man, but in Falstaff - particularly as Welles was by 1965 fifty and fat, to put it bluntly - he almost literally becomes the bragging, bibulous, lovable old fraud. His restraint in the heart-wrenching scene of newly-crowned Hal`s dismissal of him - "I know thee not, old man" - speaks volumes.
John Gielgud gives one of his best ever screen performances as Henry IV, a chilly, austere king and father, as unsentimental as he is racked with shame and guilt and concern for the succession. Of course, Gielgud speaks the lines faultlessly, but he seems to be in perfect accord with Welles`s direction and perception of the part. If Welles is the blustering heart of the film, Gielgud`s Henry is the shivering soul.
The sets are wonderful, again the low budget forcing Welles to create magic out of a bare castle or a straw-filled inn-cum-bawdy-house in some Hispanic version of Eastcheap!
That sadly neglected Welsh actor Keith Baxter (still with us at eighty) is brilliant as Hal, both in the tavern scenes and as King Henry V - by the end, you can see him adopting the piety and seriousness of the man we know from history. It is a committed and utterly natural performance. (One minor cavil is that his, and Tony Beckley/Poins`s hair styles look too contemporary.)
The glorious Margaret Rutherford is perhaps a trifle motherly as Mistress Quickly, though her final sublime prose speech recounting Falstaff`s death - one of the most moving passages in Shakespeare - is on the button.
Jeanne Moreau (what a cast!) is superb as a fiery Doll Tearsheet, and Norman Rodway a fine, suitably impetuous Hotspur.
A word too for the late Michael Aldridge (credited wrongly as Aldrich) as Pistol. He was a wonderfully funny and resourceful actor, and he invests his smallish role with an unforgettable vigour and a kind of debauched charm.
That respected, too little seen actor Alan Webb, in his scenes with Falstaff, is a model Justice Shallow, all high voice and endless chatter.
Every now and then you wonder if the whole thing is going to fall apart at the seams, such is the obvious on-the-hoof manner of the film`s production, but this feeling only adds to its overwhelming, and ultimately touching sense of rightness.
The lengthy battle scenes are astonishingly and realistically achieved, and the cinemaphotography of Edmund Richard is a thing of wonder.
There are more `perfect` films from Shakespeare, but none so exciting to look at - no, not even Kurosawa`s Ran - or so moving. The words are audible (at least they are in this new print) and spoken by all both naturally and with full attention to meaning.
This was Welles`s own favourite among his films, and one can easily see why.