Los Angeles Times

A Midwinter's Tale


Friday February 16, 1996

     If the production of "Hamlet" in writer-director Kenneth Branagh's black-and-white stage farce "A Midwinter's Tale" were reviewed by a theater critic, the lead might be something like "Denmark isn't the only state in which something is rotten."
     The movie itself, while hardly a momentous addition to the Shakespeare-on-film trove, isn't quite that bad. It has among its myriad one-liners, loose banter, bon mots and visual puns a scattering of zingers, and a few members of the flea market troupe assembled for the show are lovable retreads of familiar theater hangers-on.
     Branagh's wisp of a story is about a struggling young actor named Joe Harper (Michael Maloney) who, bowed by the stiff winds of rejection, decides to bolster his self-confidence by throwing together a Christmas production of "Hamlet" in an abandoned country church. Having more passion than resources, Harper can only afford actors for whom struggling would be considered a career goal. In the film's funniest sequence, Harper plucks from the parade of incompetent jugglers, singers, dancers, mimes, ventriloquists and other applicants the six people who will fill the rest of the roles to his Hamlet.
     The perpetually dyspeptic Henry Wakefield (Richard Briers) gets all the king roles--Claudius, the ghost of Hamlet's father and the Player King. The hunkish, egocentric Tom Newman (Nicholas Farrel) is assigned to the roles of Laertes and Fortinbras. The tippling Carnforth Greville (Gerard Horan) gets to play both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's inseparable college buddies. The ambitiously ingratiating Vernon Spatch (Mark Hadfield) becomes Polonius and Marcellus, among others, while the very fey Terry du Bois (John Sessions) gets to become queen for a day as Gertrude.
     Filling out the cast is scatterbrained and visually impaired Nina Raymond (Julia Sawalha), who plays Ophelia on the stage and Tom's conscience off it.
     That these people aren't capable of putting on a show as good as those done for the neighbors of the Little Rascals is not only the running joke of the movie, it is the movie. Once the troupe is assembled and bivouacked together for three weeks in that church, it is one comic disaster after another, connected by little spats, bonding sessions and personal revelations.
     There are subplots about Tom's disappearing seed money, and occasional visits from his faithful agent, played by Joan Collins, still pretty much in character from "The Bitch." And there is the wee notion that Tom, like Hamlet, is wrestling with the ageless question of whether life is really worth living. It's a question critics often ask themselves at times like this.
     Like Branagh's earlier "Peter's Friends," a sort of "Big Chill" reunion of a more successful acting troupe, "A Midwinter's Tale" is way too self-conscious about its humor and self-satisfied with its execution. The movie seems to pause after every quip, as if anticipating some serious thigh-slapping in the audience, before moving on to the next setup and delivery.
     Branagh has made what amounts to a feature-length skit about the passion-to-angst emotional cycle of the actor wannabe's life, and its playfulness is its strength. You can't not like people who drive themselves this hard for so elusive a dream, and the climactic scenes, when the curtain finally goes up on their poor man's "Hamlet," contain some riotous bits.
     At the same time, there is the faint whiff of patronization hanging over the whole exercise. Branagh says in the production notes that he is entering a new phase of "hit-and-run filmmaking" with "A Midwinter's Tale," and for anyone who has ever aspired to more than they could achieve onstage, a hit-and-run is what this may feel like.

A Midwinter's Tale, 1996. R, for language. A Midwinter Films production, released by TriStar. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Producer David Barron. Cinematography Roger Lanser. Editor Neil Farrell. Production designer Tim Harvey. Costumes Caroline Harris. Music Jimmy Yuill. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Michael Maloney as Joe Harper. Richard Briers as Henry Wakefield. Mark Hadfield as Vernon Spatch. Julia Sawalha as Nina Raymond. Gerard Horan as Carnforth Greville. John Sessions as Terry du Bois. Nicholas Farrell as Tom Newman.

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