Film Scouts Reviews

"In the Bleak Midwinter"

by Karen Jaehne

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 England.

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