Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

56. David Jones’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982)

My sweet readers, I have broken a promise in watching a BBC Complete Shakespeare film. I well know that fine actors were unable to rescue such productions, but I was tempted by my desire to see more Falstaff, and in particular my desire to see the great Richard Griffiths play him in this Merry Wives. This made-for-TV version from 1982 is much, much better than the other Complete BBC versions I have seen. Unfortunately, that does not make it even good.

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The usual problems with these productions abound. First, the haste of the productions and the closeness of the sets made two-shot scenes difficult. I suppose seeing people’s faces in Shakespeare could be construed as overrated. Second, these Renaissance sets of Merry Wives look fake, like those of the second season of Black Adder if someone forgot to make it funny. Oh, yes, Merry Wives is supposed to be a comedy. And third, something about the pacing of the production seems like maple syrup in zero gravity.

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Let us talk of Master Ford, as portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the same year as Gandhi and one year before playing a steel-nerved cuckold in a film adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Kingsley has interpreted his part as melodrama—a man, like Othello, who did not know jealousy until it completely overwhelmed his character. His soliloquies are delivered directly to the camera, and his performance is magnetic.

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Judy Davis plays Mistress Ford, and though she is not often on camera, she plays the part with an effervescence that somehow seems both Elizabethan and modern.

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Nigel Terry, who some may know as Arthur from Excalibur, makes the most out of hyperactive Pistol, making him seem intelligent and infinitely mischievous.

I suppose I owe you a summary of the plot. Two wives of Windsor are being wooed by the fat rascal, Sir John Falstaff, whose knighthood is of dubious origin. The wives decide to punish him for his impudence, for his assault on their marriages and honor, hence their merriment.

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Richard Griffiths apparently decided that the comedy of this comedy didn’t commence until halfway through the movie, when this illicit wooing begins. I suppose the idea was to establish Sir John’s nobility more than his charisma at the outset.

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The thing tends to drag. Time wears, as it were. The running time is just under three hours. On the whole, this Merry Wives does draw out the tensions of Shakespearean comedy, for the difference between comedy and tragedy is sometimes only how the story ends: marriage, or a pile of corpses?

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The legend is that Merry Wives was Shakespeare’s response to Queen Elizabeth’s demand that he write a play about Falstaff in love. There is a lot of love in this odd play, even if Falstaff isn’t one of the true lovers. I am not sure if someone not already familiar with the play could easily follow this version. It isn’t quite good, but overall it isn’t bad, either.

The tricky finale actually works.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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