In 1965, Orson Welles wrote, directed, and starred in Chimes at Midnight, an adaptation of a variety of William Shakespeare’s plays, primarily those included in the Henriad. Welles had long held an interest in Shakespeare and adapted many of his plays to both stage and screen. Initially produced for live performance, Chimes at Midnight closed out Welles’ career adapting Shakespeare to the stage in 1960 and with the release of the film, it became the last complete Shakespeare adaptation that Welles would see through to completion during his lifetime. Partly due to his experience with the works on stage, much like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, Welles excelled at adapting Shakespeare to the silver screen. He had a deep understanding of the material that, coupled with his innovative drive and natural talent as a performer and a director, established him as perhaps the greatest translator of Shakespeare from page to screen that has ever been seen. Chimes at Midnight was the most ambitious of his adaptations and Orson Welles (the director of Citizen Kane, I may remind you) personally believed it to be his greatest work and he wasn’t far off.
Though David Michôd’s The King would not have been terribly impressive on its own, that it draws from the same source material as Chimes at Midnight, one of the great cinematic masterpieces from one of the greatest filmmakers, only serves to highlight all of its flaws. Like Chimes at Midnight, The King makes edits to the Shakespeare to condense a handful of plays into one movie that runs just under two and a half hours, but unlike Welles who condensed the material to his needs but did not rewrite it, Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton (who also stars as Falstaff, a role previously played to much greater effect by Orson Welles) did not simply make cuts but added their own material. Not to say that they aren’t talented writers in their own right, but it is bold of even the greatest writers and Shakespearean scholars to assume they can imitate Shakespeare and these two have had relatively little experience with his works in the past. When it veers fully into rewritten dialogue and plot points trying to emulate Shakespearean English, it becomes highly distracting and noticeably different from those blissful moments taken directly from the plays, and when it throws away all pretense and opts for modern language with all its vulgarities intact, it becomes unbearable. I am not inherently opposed to modernizing the language and, in fact, updates can be quite marvelous, as was the case in 10 Things I Hate About You, but the attempt to keep it in period, while also seeking to please an audience that is likely less interested in Shakespeare, only emphasized the shortcomings of the writers. Perhaps worst of all, the changes made to the story and words never serve to make the film exciting so the very audience it is trying to reach will likely give up quickly. Shakespeare is still compelling today and there is no need to change it if it doesn’t serve the film (something Kenneth Branagh learned when he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for simply using the full, unchanged text of Hamlet) and Michôd would’ve done well to realize that.
On a technical level, everything is there. The battles look better than they have in past versions and the costuming and set design are all solid evocations of the time and place. The performances apart from Robert Pattinson, however, are much more along the lines of the writing, which is to say not intrinsically bad but lacking the depth and understanding they should have. Where so many of the performers are painfully serious even when the lines are comedic, Pattinson is comically over the top with a hilarious accent and wide gestures that evoke the ridiculousness of the film. Timothée Chalamet was much better than I would have imagined he would be in a Shakespeare adaptation but suffered from an overattachment to the material he had to work with, and developments were jumps rather than gradual. Further, there were times when he was hardly believable as a great warrior king as he seemed highly out of place in the battle scenes.
When a masterpiece of a film has been created from a text, it would seem a plan destined for failure to try and readapt the text, even with significant changes being made. No matter how much extra money and improved technology is employed, the other will always serve as a point of comparison and it is hard to exit the shadow of a masterpiece, even with a strong adaptation, as has been the case with Soderbergh’s Solaris which has never escaped the shadow of the Tarkovsky version. Unfortunately, the gap between The King and Chimes at Midnight is significant and if for some reason you find yourself wanting a film adaptation of the Henriad that isn’t Welles, the segment of it found in Branagh’s Henry V is a much better choice.
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