Branagh's Band of Misfits do the Bard
- Although a general financial success, Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic book Frankenstein was largely panned. The film's reputation has grown since its original release but Branagh's Frankenstein was at the time labeled "uneven," "manic" and supposedly residing in "dullsville." Once hailed as the next Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles after Henry V (1989), Branagh was being torn apart over Frankenstein only five years later. Obviously, it would be nice for Branagh if his next project was more affectionately received by critics. Branagh's sixth feature-length film In the Bleak Midwinter (1995 - AKA: A Midwinter's Tale, depending on what side of the Atlantic Ocean one lives on) achieved just that.
Written and directed by Branagh (who chose not to act but to write parts specifically for his buddies), In the Bleak Midwinter follows seemingly cursed actor Joe Harper (Michael Maloney) who puts on an off-beat Christmastime production of Hamlet in an attempt to save his sister's church. The play is seemingly doomed from the word "go" as Joe's agent (Joan Collins) does not approve of the idea and the best he can even recruit on such short notice during the holidays is a rag-tag bunch of misfit actors. To make matters worse, everyone brings their own variety of baggage to the set (brought out by the play's content) and the landlord is even more impatient (or greedy) than everyone originally thought. But as the production goes on, this band of misfits begin to grow close and their Hamlet takes on an identity and atmosphere of its own.
This is a surprisingly fun and impressive film - "surprising" only because I did not expect this largely (and unfortunately) forgotten little independent flick to be so enjoyable and impacting. In the Bleak Midwinter is very well written with an extraordinary sense of humor and heart at the center of the story. Branagh did a superb job composing the lightning-fast dialogue and creating some very enjoyable characters, memorable not just for the humor they bring to the film (John Sessions as a gay man cast as Queen Gertrude, for example) but for the chemistry they share and warmth they bring to the story.
The fact that the film is well cast helps make Branagh's characters very enjoyable. Every actor is terrific in their roles; the fact that Branagh wrote each character specifically for certain actors no doubt accounts for this. Michael Maloney is a great lead as Joe Harper, Joan Collins is fantastic as Joe's enabling manager Margaretta, Julia Sawalha is a cast highlight as the cute but troubled Nina and my favorite performance of the film is Richard Briers the seemingly pretentious and cantankerous thespian elder Henry Wakefield.
When viewing Branagh's entire filmography, In the Bleak Midwinter perhaps stands out most notably for restoring Branagh's professional profile after Frankenstein. It was cheap to make (its under-the-radar success yielding a sizable profit as a result) and was a hit with critics, prepping them to also anticipate and hail his next film Hamlet (1996). Branagh is justifiably known best for his brilliant and faithful cinematic productions of Shakespeare such as Henry V and Hamlet. However, a film like In the Bleak Midwinter not only proves that Branagh can also play loose with Shakespeare but displays his genuinely diverse talents as a screenwriter and director.
Unfortunately, this gem has largely been relegated to resting in cinematic obscurity. In the Bleak Midwinter is really witty, fun, warm and, if one can find it, should not be missed.
CBC Rating: 8/10