Review (****) ‘A Midwinter’s Tale’, Castle Rock 1996. 1 hour 38 minutes.
By Alan Brown
December 18, 2017
‘A Midwinter’s Tale’ (also titled ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’), is available:
in the US, from Amazon.com to rent for $9.99 and to buy as a DVD for $14.99
in the UK, from Amazon.co.uk to rent for £2.49 and to buy for £7.99
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.
If you’re thinking of watching A Midwinter’s Tale, or giving it as a present, over Christmas, check out our other Christmas suggestions in: Shakespeare @ Christmas.
Our Bottom Line:
A Kenneth Branagh film and a genuine ensemble piece. I’d risk saying that this was made with love, wrapped carefully, and offered as a gift to the theatre. There are tears of frustration, much comforting, wild camp humour (from John Sessions as Gertrude) true affection, and moments of theatrical barnstorming that should capture any would-be actor.
Our Review (****)
Another one for Advent. After the jollity and frolics of ‘Upstart Crow’ (1) comes a treat of a Christmas production from Kenneth Branagh’s stable. This particular miraculous and heartwarming event is the story of how ‘Hamlet’ – winner of the Least Likely Nativity Play Award – gets onto a stage in an ugly cold church somewhere in the English countryside and wins notices to die for.
Go to the lyrics of Noel Coward’s ‘Why Must the Show Go On?’ (1959) for a subtext that is every bit as convincing as ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. The first two verses of Coward’s teasing song cover the opening credits, and the film’s Prologue ‘I Have to Talk To My Agent’ opens with this question to all actors and ‘creatives’, past and present,
And if you’re so blue,
And thoroughly woe-begone,
Why must the show go on?
Actor – Director, Joe (Michael Maloney), is 33 and depressed. He needs this ‘Hamlet’ to cheer himself up, to properly be himself. The trouble is that he has no backers and no actors. Enter, over a nice glass of red, his agent Margaretta (an immaculate Joan Collins) who puts up £600 and her office for a week. She expects – and is right – that Joe’s company will be made up of luckless ‘eccentrics, misfits and nutters’, as out of sorts as Joe himself. Still, it’s Christmas and charity underwrites every audition. Six actors are chosen and they pile into Joe’s heap of a station wagon and set off for their ‘God forsaken venue’ – Wrong! – that just happens to be the condemned church of a village called ‘Hope’.
It is pretty but bleak out there, which might explain why ‘A Midwinter’s Tale’ is shot in black-and-white. Anyway Joe’s ‘free and experimental’ production is seriously low budget and he cannot afford to rent decent lights. He’s looking for collaboration, which means they all bunk down in the crypt and the vestry. There is a pub down the road, a godsend for Carnforth Greville (playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (!), Horatio, Bernado and the Captain), and the few external shots are of the village phone box at night as a desperate actor phones a friend for support. Design of ‘people in smoke and space’ is by Fadge (Celia Imrie goes Bobo) and she has a sputtering smoke machine. Get the picture?
The mirth and joy, of course, is in how the company comes together in just eleven days of rehearsal. Ironic and mildly suspenseful, then, that just when it all seems to cohere, it comes close to falling apart. The twist is obviously contrived and you can see it coming but blame the movie business – personified by Jennifer Saunders as a ridiculous Hollywood producer – and not the gallant actors. Cue fine usage of ‘the readiness is all’ lines at 1.21.25 and the opportunity for Richard Briers as Henry (Claudius) to play both ‘old sweetie’ and ‘miserable git’ at the same time to Julia Sawalha’s Ophelia, as only he could.
Joe wants a genuine ensemble piece and Branagh’s pastiche of a script provides it in full measure. There are tears of frustration, much comforting, wild camp humour (from John Sessions as Gertrude) true affection, and moments of theatrical barnstorming that should capture any would-be actor. The actual performance when it comes, at 1.25, is a brief series of thrilling shots – as when Ophelia slaps Hamlet across the face or when a bare-chested Laertes (Nicholas Farrell) duels with the Prince and the audience is up and cheering them on.
It’s a tribute production, really, to the acting profession, to its ever hopeful audiences, to Shakespeare, and to the spirit of Christmas with which the film ends, closing with a lovely guitar arrangement of Holst’s setting of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. In this season of good will to all, do applaud it.