Midwinter's Tale, A (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Following the spectacular failure of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh returned to England to make the kind of film he was most familiar with: a very British, low-budget production rooted deeply in the works of William Shakespeare. However, instead of filming "Hamlet" straight (as Branagh will do for his next film), the writer/director chose instead to focus his story on a small troupe of largely-untalented actors and their attempts to put together a Christmas week production of the Bard's most celebrated tragedy. Echoing the farcical Noises Off, A Midwinter's Tale is a first-rate comedy that offers far more laughs (all of them intentional) than anything Branagh has previously done.

A Midwinter's Tale is loaded with allusions, both cinematic and literary. The most obvious are those from Shakespeare, which understandably permeate the film. Not only are the characters attempting to perform "Hamlet", but certain scenes from the play hit a little too close to home for several of them. Branagh also simultaneously pays homage to and pokes fun at one of the most respected British filmmakers of all time: Sir Laurence Olivier. Elements of A Midwinter's Tale's presentation recall the work of Woody Allen, and the ensemble cast is the kind that Allen usually gathers -- although Branagh uses British names while Allen typically assembles Americans.

With all of Branagh's energy focused on directing (he never appears on screen), A Midwinter's Tale is almost always on-target. Unlike the misfired comedy Peter's Friends, melodrama never threatens to overwhelm humor. In fact, most of the so-called dramatic aspects of this film are subtle parodies of traditional Hollywood cliches: the struggling actor choosing love over fame, a reconciliation between a long-separated father and son, and a man finally earning his mother's approval after a lifetime of failure. Branagh handles these themes deftly, treating each with enough respect to create emotional arcs for the characters, but making sure the audience knows he's fully aware of how overused the material is.

The main character is actor/director Joe Harper (Michael Maloney, who bears a strong physical resemblance to Ralph Fiennes, and whose acting style echoes Branagh's), who, during a slow time in his career, risks bankruptcy to stage an experimental Christmas-time production of "Hamlet" in his home town of Hope. Unfortunately, auditions don't go well -- all the respected theatrical talent is involved in one production or another of "A Christmas Carol" -- and Joe finds only six willing participants. Since the text necessitates 24 roles, everyone is forced to play multiple parts. Thus, Hamlet's Ghost, Claudius, and the Player King all bear a strong resemblance to one another, Laertes is moonlighting as about five other people, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are one. Gertrude is played by a drag queen (John Sessions), Ophelia is essayed by an amazingly nearsighted actress (Julia Sawahla), Horatio is a drunk (Gerard Horan), and the set designer (Celia Imrie) is a mystic who judges the likely success of a production by how stiff her nipples become.

Branagh has fun with his material, weaving a tale likely to generate guffaws even for those with little knowledge of the play upon which it is based. As the "Hamlet" rehearsals get underway, Murphy's Law is in full effect. Egos clash, Laertes' funny accent becomes incomprehensible, Rosencrantz/Guildenstern gets sauced, and Ophelia takes a nasty spill. It's all enough to make Joe doubt the sanity of putting on a "400-year old play about a depressed aristocrat."

As usual, the director has surrounded himself with a group of fine actors. Central roles go to Michael Maloney (Othello), Branagh alum Richard Briers (Much Ado About Nothing), Ab Fab's Julia Sawalha (her co-star from that show, Jennifer Saunders, has a cameo as an American movie producer), John Sessions (Henry V), Gerard Horan (Much Ado), Hetta Charnley (as Joe's sister), and the ethereal Celia Imrie (Mary Shelly's Frankenstein). Joan Collins goes intentionally over-the-top as Joe's vulture-like agent.

No current film maker appears to love and understand Shakespeare as well as Branagh, and never has his affection for the Bard been more apparent than here. This picture succeeds as a comedy, a satire, and even, to a certain extent, as a mild melodrama about choosing between a paycheck and the nourishment of the soul. A Midwinter's Tale is also a stylistic accomplishment. Filmed in black-and-white, it's a movie of shadows and starkly contrasting images, all of which are used to their best effect. Anyone who wondered about Branagh's future following Frankenstein can set their concerns to rest. He's back on top in the independent arena with A Midwinter's Tale, a film that offers ninety-eight minutes of pure fun re-interpreting the phrase "the play's the thing."

Midwinter's Tale, A (United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 1996-02-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1