A Midwinter's Tale
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, Mark Hadfield, Nicholas Farrell, Gerald Horan, John Sessions, Celia Imrie, Hetta Charnley, Julia Sawalha, Joan Collins. (1995, R, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., March 15, 1996
Oh, there's no people like show people! I mean, who else would hole up in a drafty old church in a tiny English village at Christmastime and attempt to stage Hamlet with seven actors and no money? They're a plucky little breed, show folk, wonder boy Branagh wants us to know, and he's written and directed this comedy as a paean to them and to the magic of theatre. Center stage is Joe (Maloney), a desperate actor who's cobbling together this shoestring production of Shakespeare's greatest play -- with himself as director and star -- as a way of salvaging his self-esteem after a very bad year (unemployed, dumped by girlfriend, nixed for big part in Hollywood sci-fi epic). Naturally, the money -- or lack thereof -- ensures that his colleagues in this venture will be the dregs of the stage: the green, the spacy, tipplers, hacks. Branagh begins broadly, playing up those notorious old excesses of thespians -- bitchiness, pretentiousness, vanity -- and while he never shows us anything we haven't seen in a dozen other backstage satires, he keeps it brisk and funny. Midway through, though, the tone mellows. Branagh has his characters unreel the sad stories behind their fools' faces, and we see clearly in the distance -- almost as if it's outlined in Magic Marker -- a big sloppy finish coming, with internal traumas banished, confidence restored, and love descending like a dove. Being sentimental isn't a crime, but Branagh takes it a bit far, laying on romantic symbolism that even Frank Capra would have thought twice about. I mean, the village in which these actors stage their Hamlet is called Hope (which may play better in the director's homeland but lands with a big thud here given our President's hometown), and they're performing in a church -- get it? Theatre is like a church for these people; it restores their faith in themselves! Fortunately, Branagh preserves enough comedy in the tale to keep it from drowning in treacle, and his actors create such appealing characters that we like them in spite of everything. Still, it seems a whopping spoonful of sweetness to swallow. That, however, may be the point. Like the Bard's Winter's Tale, this may be the kind of story people need in the bleak midwinter: a warm and sugary elixir to stave off the cold and stay them through springtime. In which case, it hits the spot it aims for.