ICYMI *Holiday Edition*: A Midwinter's Tale (1995)
The career of Kenneth Branagh has seen him rise from stage-based Shakespearean wunderkind to international film star and acclaimed director. He gained instant notoriety and multiple Oscar nominations in 1989 with his bold and visionary take on Henry V. He has recently reinvigorated his audience, as well as garnered new fans, with back-to-back box office hits in 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. But he always finds a way to return to his Shakespearean roots.
1995’s A Midwinter’s Tale (original title: In the Bleak Midwinter) is easily one of his most charming efforts, and fits nicely into our current theme since it is set at Christmas. This time, Branagh stays behind the camera but it’s hard to not see his passion in the guise of protagonist Joe Harper (Michael Maloney). Joe is a struggling actor looking to rejuvenate his career with a local production of Hamlet that he will direct and star in during Christmas week at an abandoned church. Apparently, Branagh funded the film himself with the money he made from 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It almost seems fitting since this film seems like an apology for that previous big-budget flop.
Despite being out of work, Joe is constantly pestered by his loyal and driven agent, Margaretta (a wonderfully droll Joan Collins). But Joe is determined to bring his vision of Hamlet to the locals despite a lack of money or discernible talent. We get the conventional but still amusing montage of wannabe performers wishing to join Joe’s Shakespearean vision. Most notably, Joe casts a drag queen (John Sessions) as Gertrude, a near-sighted lass (Julia Sawalha) as Ophelia and an eager thespian (Nicholas Farrell) who believes that each character he plays should have a different accent.
In the course of a few weeks, we watch as the cast stumbles and bonds in the barest bones of surroundings. The cast is aided by Fadge (Celia Imrie), a typically over-the-top theater lifer who is part costume designer, part set decorator, part choreographer and all enthusiasm. There’s drama when Joe gets offered a lucrative role in a sci-fi trilogy but must leave the production before opening night. But, thankfully, all’s well that ends well.
Additionally, there’s a surprisingly touching friendship that develops between the previously mentioned drag queen and Henry (Richard Briers), an old school actor and homophobe who grows. Henry’s opening night surprise for his newfound friend is especially gracious. You should also make note of the famous characters on their respective bed covers.
The film is shot in black and white which gives the feeling of classic Hollywood screwball comedies. The entire cast is game as can be and there’s bonus joy in the form of Jennifer Saunders as the Hollywood producer trying to court Joe. And director Branagh squeezes out all of the small-town theatre charm in a film that somehow predated Waiting for Guffman.
Kenneth Branagh recently turned 58 and shows no signs of slowly down. I, for one, am looking forward to his upcoming cinematic adaption of Artemis Fowl as well as his next turn as Hercule Poirot in his take on Death on the Nile. In the meantime, A Midwinter’s Tale is a grand celebration of all things theatre and Shakespeare or all things Branagh