I should make mention right off the bat with this one that I’m not much of a Shakespeare fan. It’s not the fault of the playwright, though; I’ve seen too many productions of his works that are so blocky and square, and don’t make proper good use of the unique style of the dialogue, that it just comes across as intelligible. I saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I absolutely almost died laughing at, but aside from that and a scant few film exceptions, I don’t generally take too well to a Shakespeare adaptation. Now, Orson Welles, like Laurence Olivier, seems to be a huge Shakespeare fan, and has done a number of productions of the playwright’s works. This, Chimes at Midnight, is probably the best regarded of all that Welles had done, and that doesn’t just include Shakespearean works; Welles himself regarded this film as his best, and the one he would submit to heaven to get in on the basis of what he had done in life, so that’s saying an awful lot. Now, take his reverence for his own work, and combine it with my lackluster appreciation of Shakespeare, and I really wasn’t sure where I’d come down on with this one. Naturally, like so many other films I’ve ridden this fence with, I seem to be somewhere right in the middle; it is a grand work, and achieves everything Welles sets out to achieve with it, but as much as I was able to regard it well, it just wasn’t my sort of thing.
All the classic tells of a Wellesian film are here: oblique camera angles, expert use of contrasting light and shadow, and the extensive use of deep focus, as well as, of course, the unnervingly mobile camera. Here, though, Welles makes use of a lot more cuts than I recall being in his films, so the importance and weight of the movement shots is lessened somewhat, but it’s still infinitely interesting to watch. The dialogue, as far as I could tell, was Shakespearean, and if it wasn’t it certainly made like it was enough for me to not tell the difference, so if Shakespeare isn’t your thing, this will likely be a hard watch for you. Also, the Book makes a big deal about the synchronization of the audio tracks to the actor’s dialogue, but aside from a few instances where it was noticeable, it was for the most part acceptable. But again, still noticeable, so heads up if that sort of thing isn’t your fancy. One other thing that warrants mention is the absolutely spectacular battle sequence in the middle of the film. It presages films like Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, and especially The Lord of the Rings, and it is the clear highlight of the film, even if you dislike the Bard and his work.
Like most of the Shakespeare that I’ve seen, it is the intonation of the dialogue, and the delivery of it, that told me more information about the plot than the actual dialogue itself, which I was barely able to decipher. That being said, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, even with it being Welles, whom I generally regard with great enthusiasm. I wasn’t expecting to overcome the Shakespeare dissonance, and I didn’t entirely, but it was thanks to Welles being Welles that I was able to to at least any sort of degree. The film’s mood was ever-enjoyable, and the Battle of Shrewsbury sequence being the outstanding example of film battles that it is, I was able to glean a lot more from this than I otherwise would have been able to, so I’m thankful for that at least. I’m not sure if those other people who don’t take much to Shakespeare will be able to overcome that particular obstacle, but this is Orson Welles, dammit; if he can’t manage that for you, nobody can. I’m not saying he will, though, and it is that trepidation that leads me to give the film the rating I have. This is worth a try more for Welles than it is for Shakespeare, though from what I’ve heard, if you’re a big Shakespeare nut, this is damn near a must see for you.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10