The corpulent and puckish Falstaff lives life dishonestly but truthfully, a roguish contradiction living in each moment, disloyal to others but true to thyself: a poor man with a rich heart. Orson Welles navigates the tragicomic character into a moral compass, centering his narrative upon the rotund protagonist who reflects upon the past darkly, a man perfect in his imperfections.
Welles imbues Falstaff with much more than just his oversized physical stature; he becomes a mirthful and yet often despicable opportunist, a victim of his own his drunken folly and escapades. Falstaff becomes his own worst enemy. Yet he is wonderfully incompetent, clad in the hilariously pot-bellied amour, hiding behind the bushes during a gruesome duel where his cohort Prince Hal fights for the right of ascension. Even when he boasts of his involvement, it is more comical than deceitful, his expectant lies accepted with the taint of incredulity. Welles' broad craggy features, shock of white hair, huge disposition, and commanding voice tinged with self-deprecation make him sympathetic and ultimately tragic; a huge man diminished by his own aggrandizements.
The cinematography is brilliant with deep focus photography allowing characters to move within the frame and yet remain visually prominent. Welles uses both high and low angle shots to great effect, creating the illusion of a much larger castle or crowd to continue outside the composition. When Falstaff is informed of the Prince's coronation, he limps towards the camera and dominates the screen shot from an extreme low angle, becoming an important (at least to himself) persona. This parallels another fantastic shot of Falstaff as he is spurned by his former friend and he limps away from the camera, remaining in focus as he diminishes slowly from sight between two stone arches...a huge man fading away. The Battle of Shrewsbury is wonderfully captured on film and edited with quick action inserts and brutal violence, creating a realistic and textural experience of medieval combat. Details such as the knights being lowered by ropes onto their mounts, dead and dying horses, and knights reduced to animals scrambling in thick mud and dying in heaps. Welles depicts this realistically and not theatrically, and must have influenced films as diverse as EXCALIBUR and BRAVEHEART (though this sequence is better than either film).
This is arguably Welles' masterpiece as it becomes involving not only through the frisson of the narrative but the friction of the visuals, the heat generated between scenes and frames, Shakespeare's dialogue spoken with the utmost authority and zeal, breathing life into this pastiche of history. The times do change but the men remain the same.
Final Grade: (A+)