FROM THE ARCHIVES: A Midwinter's Tale
Reviewed by Gary Crowdus

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. DVD, B&W, 98 min., 1995. A Warner Archive Collection release.

Following Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), his first experience directing and starring in a big-budget Hollywood movie, and the first real critical failure of his film career, Kenneth Branagh determined that his next film would be a distinct change of pace. A Midwinter’s Tale (released in the U.K. as In the Bleak Midwinter), written and directed by Branagh (who does not appear in the film), was an independently-produced (largely financed by Branagh himself from his Frankenstein salary), low-budget, black-and-white film shot in just twenty-one days.

A Midwinter’s Tale is clearly a highly personal, if not directly autobiographical, film for Branagh, who has often recounted how, as an eleven-year-old, he was captivated by the TV broadcast of a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Hamlet, which starred Richard Chamberlain, otherwise then best known as Dr. Kildare. As a result of that life-transforming experience, Branagh later studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and went on to perform the title role in Hamlet numerous times, on the stage and for radio, culminating in his four-hour, full-text, 70mm Panavision film version in 1996. The cast of A Midwinter’s Tale features several members of Branagh’s own Renaissance Theatre Company—which he established in 1987—who have also appeared in many of his films, including Michael Maloney, Nicholas Farrell, Richard Briers, Gerard Horan, and John Sessions, plus Joan Collins (as Joe’s agent) and Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha (the disputatious mother and daughter of Absolutely Fabulous).

Described by Branagh as “a comic look at existential despair,” the film involves the efforts of unemployed and despondent English actor Joe (Michael Maloney) to stage a Yuletide production of Hamlet in his childhood town of Hope. Though ostensibly intended as a fundraiser for a local church threatened with demolition by a developer, it’s clear that this desperate and underfinanced endeavor is primarily intended to boost Joe’s spirits and, if he’s lucky, his career. Combining the eccentricities of the classic Ealing Studios comedies and the winsome energy of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Hey kids, we could put on the show right here” Hollywood musicals, A Midwinter’s Tale chronicles the comic travails of Joe and his motley theatrical troupe, from a bizarre series of auditions, a testy cast read-through, and some rather problematic rehearsals, which humorously illustrate the personal and professional idiosyncrasies of each member of the ensemble. The opening-night presentation, despite the threat of the last-minute loss of Joe as their director and lead performer, nevertheless comes off as a rousing success not only for the small but select local audience but also for each of its eager and resilient performers.

Unlike the overheated romanticism and vertiginous cinematic style of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with its perpetually sweeping, swirling, and swooping camera movements, A Midwinter’s Tale is visually rather sedate, comprised primarily of deep-focus, stationary camera setups of medium to long shots, with most of the action involving characters entering or leaving the frame. The film also boasts a number of hilarious sight gags and adroit montages, complemented by a few well-placed choruses of Noel Coward’s sardonic show-biz serenade, “Why Must the Show Go On?” The script’s fast-paced verbal banter conveys not only the anxieties and insecurities of actors but also the idiosyncrasies and foibles of individuals in any small-group setting. The film is, not surprisingly, replete with references to (and a few in-jokes about) actors’ predilections for offbeat makeup, gestures and accents, contemporaneous trends in Royal Shakespeare Company productions at Stratford, legendary Shakespearean actors (from Henry Irving to Laurence Olivier), and Shakespeare’s profound insights into the human condition.

The predominantly comedic qualities of A Midwinter’s Tale, however, gradually begin shading into more dramatic aspects, as the emotional states and interrelationships of some of the fictional characters begin to resonate intimately and rather uncomfortably for several of the actors portraying them. Unlike the tragedy of Hamlet, though, all ends well here, with family relationships restored, acting careers revitalized, and the blossoming of several new romantic relationships. Some viewers may find the film’s shift from self-parodying comedy to self-conscious sentiment a tad cloying, but it is sentiment for the most part well-earned, and clearly delivers the “happy ending” that Branagh desired for his modest and sweet little film.

A Midwinter’s Tale will be a particular treat for anyone who loves actors, acting, and Shakespeare. Thankfully, after long being available only in outdated VHS and laser-disc editions, what Shakespeare critic and scholar Samuel Crowl has called “the overlooked gem of [Branagh’s] work as a film director” is now finally available on DVD, in a terrific-looking transfer, as part of the growing Warner Archive Collection.

Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.

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