Digging up his garden in search of his roots, Kenneth Branagh found an amusing
riff on Shakespeare that he wrote back in about 1990. He has turned it
into a sly but artsy little tale of why we should be true to our Art and
take not too seriously the Actor's Eternal Despair.
"A Midwinter's Tale" is about Joe Harper, an actor on the verge
of either total failure or moderate success. He wants to produce "Hamlet"
over the Christmas holidays in a remote English hamlet, pulling it together
with a combination of his meager savings and desperately available actors.
(People usually do this sort of off-off-off-B'way stuff to attract agents;
our hero has an agent, played by Joan Collins, so...give him the benefit
of the doubt.)
Branagh does not appear in this, but his alter-ego is played by Michael
Maloney, a dark-haired man with a captivating personality and not much star
quality. Maloney plays Harper with a genuine sense of panic and without
Branagh's bravura. The result has the sexy appeal of (very) early Pacino.
In an abandoned church in the English countryside, we watch this hapless
troupe of actors prepare their version of Hamlet. Branagh uses this to
show why acting-that is, Shakespearean acting-is so difficult. (Annette
Benning should have seen this before taking on Richard III.) Not only is
the text intimidating to memorize, but once you understand what Shakespeare
is actually saying, its profound insight into the human condition punctures
your entire conception of the universe. No easy task, the Bard.
With the predictable but farcical wisdom of old Ealing comedies, the characters
develop witty ways of jousting with the gritty reality of a low-budget show.
The most experimental, so as not to say innovative, aspect of the production
is in the role of Gertrude (Hamlet's mum). The touchingly funny John Sessions
plays her with high camp self-possession, giving us an idea of how Bette
Midler might would do Elizabethan tragedy.
This is a lovely valentine of a movie, a tribute to the more modest talent
of Branagh's fellow thespians who work hard but don't become stars the size
of, say, Emma Thompson. (Oops, this movie is not supposed to be the occasion
to discuss the split of the greatest Shakespearean couple since Elizabeth
Taylor and Richard Burton.)
In the end-which I don't want to give away, but you'll have guessed it by
the last act-our Midwinter hero is saved from his disastrous Hamlet by a
call to greatness-which he does not accept, because he is true to his one
true love. And if you'll believe that, you'll believe Kenneth Branagh will
sell his Hollywood flat cheap and never again leave the sceptred isle of
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