In the Bleak Midwinter

on February 16, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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   A long-out-of-work actor, Joe Harper (Michael Maloney), decides to stage "Hamlet" at a disused rural church in England during Christmas; he envisions working with "a group of like-minded artists in a rough but thrillingly real location." His agent, Margaretta D'Arville (Joan Collins), warns that at this season all he'll be able to cast are "eccentrics, misfits and nutters" and that unthrillingly real penury is nearly assured. But Joe is unstoppable. As is this film's comic pitch: Writer/director Kenneth Branagh here to lighter fare brings the slam-bam fever that overpowered his "Frankenstein."
   As his "Hamlet" cast comes together, we learn how prescient his agent was: There's the decrepit Henry (Richard Briers), self-absorbed Tom (Nick Farrell), inebriate Carn-forth (Gerard Horan), cocky Vernon (Mark Hadfield), pantomime grande dame Terry (John Sessions) and scatterbrained Nina (Julia Sawalha). The Old Vic never had it so bad, and Branagh makes sure we know it, eliciting mug-filled, overly motile performances that would seem overdone viewed from the 200th row. Yet a reference by one character to LCA -- "less crap acting" -- is not true of "In the Bleak Midwinter"; the acting is on, it's the directing that's off.
   Nonetheless, and even if its in-jokes will play funniest to those among the thespian ranks, Branagh's scripts are nothing if not smart. His characters' passion for their art despite all obstacles finally proves winning, and Roger Lanser's charming black-and-white lensing adds an authentic low-budget feel to their proceedings. Although this is clearly a warmup for Branagh's full-length dramatic "Hamlet" (like this film, a Castle Rock production), at 100 minutes it's pleasant enough for whiling away a bleak midwinter night. But let's hope before he doubles that running time that Branagh recalls that some of the best moments in moving pictures come when everything is quiet and still.    Starring Michael Maloney, Julia Sawalha and Joan Collins. Directed and written by Kenneth Branagh. Produced by David Barron. A Sony Classics release. Comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 100 min.
Tags: Michael Maloney, Julia Sawalha and Joan Collins. Directed and written by Kenneth Branagh. Produced by David Barron. A Sony Classics release. Comedy, self-absorbed, envisions, thespian, passion
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