Joe (Michael Maloney), a long-out-of-work London actor, is so hard-up to feel good about his career that he decides to take a sort of last stand against failure. He borrows a small stake from his agent (Joan Collins) to stage a low-budget Christmas production, starring himself, at a church in his hometown.
His instincts hint at why his career may not be going better: The frothy holiday entertainment he chooses to offer the economically depressed community is Hamlet. With nothing to tempt actors but a profit share and commune-style room and board, Joe can manage only a gaggle of misfits for his supporting cast. And it's a small gaggle at that--six.
Thus, the easygoing tippler who plays Horatio (Gerard Horan) is called upon to play both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well. The earnest, humorless Laertes (Nicholas Farrell) also turns up as Fortinbras, Reynaldo and a host of other roles; the jolly trouper of a Polonius (Mark Hadfield) doubles as the First Gravedigger, and so forth.
Only two characters, apart from Hamlet, are played solo: Gertrude, played here in drag by a panto queen (John Sessions), and Claudius, played by a crabby old campaigner (the terrific Richard Briers). The company is filled out by a dizzy, myopic Ophelia (Julia Sawalha); a strange, artsy designer (Celia Imrie); and Joe's businesslike sister (Hetta Charnley), who's also his stand-in during rehearsals. This is the setup of AMidwinter's Tale, Kenneth Branagh's sixth feature as a director, this one from an original script of his own. Shot by Roger Lanser in fine black and white in a simple manner reminiscent of Woody Allen's recent style, it's a sentimental but often hilarious love letter to the scroungy end of the serious theatre: no-budget productions that pay little or nothing; pretentious aesthetic justifications for decisions made for the sake of economy; alliances; egos out of control; silly squabbles; flirtations arising half from boredom; and, now and then, real art. Put bluntly, it's the theatre as most actors know it, although Branagh, considering his early success, can't have known it for very long.
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Perhaps because Branagh got past the sleeping-in-churches stage of his career so young, A Midwinter's Tale is a bit warm and fuzzy. It could have done, perhaps, with a little more hilarity, a little less sentimentality. Every now and then, agent Collins (whose performance is handled very straightforwardly; she's clearly not the camp figure for Brits that she's become for us) is dropped in to remind us that Joe's up for a lucrative part in a science-fiction film, and soon we're aware that a conflict is coming. Branagh, trying for a heartwarming ending, comes up with a resolution for Joe's career dilemma that is not only unrealistic, but not even satisfying as corn.
Still, Branagh's bitchy dialogue hums along nicely in the mouths of this cast, made up largely of alumni of his earlier films--the Byronic-looking Maloney played the Dauphin in Henry V and Roderigo opposite Branagh in Oliver Parker's Othello. Tale is a small, very modest film, but it's a labor of love of the sort that theatre folk can lavish only on themselves, and it's hard to resist, especially for other theatre folk, who will see many episodes at which to laugh and/or wince in recognition.--M. V. Moorhead
A Midwinter's Tale:
Directed by Kenneth Branagh; with Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, John Sessions, Julia Sawalha, Celia Imrie, Gerard Horan and Joan Collins.