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‘A Midwinter’s Tale’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 23, 1996


Kenneth Brannagh
Michael Maloney;
Richard Briers;
Julia Sawalha;
John Sessions
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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If theatrical satires weren't such an indestructible genre, Kenneth Branagh's "A Midwinter's Tale" might be dismissed as a complete fiasco. The backstage story is cliched and dismissible, the staging monotonous and the direction ragged. Instead, there are so many laughs here, so much theatrical temperament on display, that you can't help but embrace the picture, even with its obvious flaws.

The first problem is Michael Maloney, who fails to bring much of a charge to the neurotic star at the center of the story. Rejected by his girlfriend, out of work, and near suicide, Maloney's Joe Harper hopes to revive himself by dumping all of his savings into a shoestring production of "Hamlet" in which he'll play the melancholy Prince. The production is to be staged over the Christmas holidays in a dilapidated church with only six actors to play the 24 roles.

The actors are drawn mostly from the local area and haven't had much experience. (The audition sequence at the beginning of the picture is a true gem.) Unfortunately, all of them are more colorful and fascinating than the figure at the heart of the piece. Henry (Richard Briers), who is picked to play Claudius, has never worked in the classics before, but his encyclopedic knowledge of such history-making theatrical legends as Henry Irving provides him with a wealth of inspiration to fall back on. Nina (Julia Sawalha), on the other hand, earns a shot at Ophelia by performing a Deborah Harry song.

As a writer, Branagh clearly knows what he's doing. He brings a sense of perfect pitch to the catty bitching that goes on behind the scenes. The writer-director is also sensitive to the ways in which the members of this ragtag group drop their petty jealousies and become a family. But Branagh doesn't expand on his material. The bitching remains just that—a string of bright insults. Granted, they are delivered by a gifted cast of actors who bat the English language around as if it were a badminton birdie. Whenever Branagh attempts to stretch his premise—such as when he tries to make a connection between Joe's inertia and Hamlet's—the movie stops dead in its tracks.

What keeps it going—and holds our interest—is the off-the-cuff charm of the cast members. Because Joe wants a production that is open to experimentation, he hires a male actor who specializes in women's roles to play Gertrude, and in the role, John Sessions raises the bar for hilarious, campy innuendo. The ensemble work here is impressive; they all play beautifully off one another. Except for Maloney. As an actor, he seems walled off in a world of his own. There's something aloof and "not there" about him; he doesn't connect.

The film was shot quickly on a low budget, and it shows. But instead of gaining energy from its looseness and informality, the movie's focus becomes increasingly diffuse. You keep expecting the film to build up the dizzy heights of farce, but it remains earthbound. It's a farce without wings.

A Midwinter's Tale is rated PG-13.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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