In The Bleak Midwinter (aka A Midwinter’s Tale)

In The Bleak Midwinter posterWhile he’s certainly more known for his bigger adaptations of Shakespeare (along with a controversial Frankenstein and the first MCU Thor movie) Kenneth Branagh (aka Chuckles to followers of Wittertainment) has a few other tricks up his sleeve and this delightful little film is one of them.

Following the fortunes of a set of eccentric actors as they prepare for a less conventional production of Hamlet (which Branagh would film next), In The Bleak Midwinter (or A Midwinter’s Tale as its also known), is a charming and hilarious look at the world of actors with a big heart.

Our central figure here is Joe Harper (Michael Maloney), an out of work actor at the end of his tether, putting his final enthusiasm and resources into a production of Hamlet back in his home town.

Along with him are a motley crew of actors, played by a suitably motley crew of actors, including Richard Briers, John Sessions, Celia Imrie, Julia Sawalha and more, along with Joan Collins cameoing as his agent.

In The Bleak Mid Winter cast
The cast of the new production of Hamlet

While the plot drives the film along nicely and does it’s job, the film’s real triumph is in its mood and it’s ensemble nature.

With each character being something of an acting archetype it starts off a bit like Clerks if Kevin Smith had been an actor not a convenience store clerk, not just because Branagh has chosen to shoot in black and white, but the general tone has a similar feel with a potentially serious heart covered with a thick layer of humour ranging from a satire of the theatrical world to something approaching farce.

Performance wise it really does feel like an ensemble with everyone having their part and their moments though it would be hard to argue against Briers and Sessions relationship being a highlight, grounded in comedy but growing into something more, and Julia Sawalha being an unassuming emotional tour de force as it all develops.

In The Bleak Midwinter - Michael Maloney and Kenneth Branagh
Maloney and Branagh on set

Shot simply but effectively there are some moments where it’s explicitly clear this is being directed by a world class filmmaker and these moments, though all subdued, look spectacular, but for the most part, like the story, it’s all very nicely unassuming.

As the film goes on the serious side comes and goes just enough, while the humour remains throughout, and it ends on a truly emotional, if somewhat romanticised, note with some great messages about the importance of art, family and being true to oneself, though these never feel overplayed.

What really makes the film for me though is how it captures the feel of a play coming together and the interactions and relationships between the actors and crew which is something I’ve experienced, albeit at more of an ‘am dram’ level and totally rings true in an astonishing way.

In The Bleak Midwinter - Richard Briers and John Sessions
Richard Briers and John Sessions

With that In The Bleak Midwinter is a must watch for anyone who’s been involved with theatre at any level and, I would think, is also a great way to spend a couple of hours for anyone who loves theatre or cinema and while it may not be one of Branagh’s celebrated Shakespearean epics fits in very nicely alongside them as something of a comment on their very existence.

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