Midwinter's Tale, A (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Mar 25, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Midwinter's Tale, A (Blu-ray Review)


Kenneth Branagh

Release Date(s)

1995 (December 12, 2023)


Midwinter Films/Castle Rock Entertainment (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: D

A Midwinter's Tale (Blu-ray)

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A comedy about a temporary acting company staging a low-budget production of Hamlet at Christmastime, A Midwinter’s Tale, originally titled In the Bleak Midwinter in its U.K. release, is witty if self-consciously so, broadly-acted but clearly written and performed by those intimately familiar with its subject.

The film is a curiosity in one major sense. Writer-director (but not star this time) Kenneth Branagh had been married up to this point to the great actress Emma Thompson, with whom he frequently worked beginning with the 1987 miniseries Fortunes of War. Thompson’s first movie was The Tall Guy (1989), one of the funniest and most underrated comedies of the last 40 years, though it was not a big commercial success. Partly it’s about a struggling actor and his relationships with various eccentric fellow thespians and directors. Its story is completely different from A Midwinter’s Tale, but the components are largely the same.

In The Tall Guy, for instance, the main character’s agent is an empathetic older woman, played by Anna Massey. In A Midwinter’s Tale, the main character’s agent is an empathetic older woman, played by Joan Collins. In The Tall Guy, the main character plays the lead in a seemingly doomed production (a musical version of The Elephant Man) with alternately pretentious, flighty, and cranky stage veterans, likewise in Midwinter.

I don’t know but I suspect Thompson has a great time making The Tall Guy—everyone in that film seems to be enjoying themselves enormously—and that Branagh hoped for a similar experience with similar results on Midwinter.

In Branagh’s film, Michael Maloney plays Joe, an obvious Branagh surrogate who repeats some of Branagh’s actorly tics (Branagh tends to mumble/ramble in contemporary roles). Out of work and down on his luck, Joe borrows money from his agent, Margaretta (Collins), to stage a Christmastime production of Hamlet in his hometown of Hope, Derbyshire. He casts six fellow eccentrics for the overly ambitious production: crotchety stage veteran Henry (Richard Briers) as Claudius; vain method actor Tom (Nicholas Farrell) as Laertes; alcoholic character actor Carnforth (Gerald Horan) as both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, among others; flamboyantly gay actor Terry (John Sessions) as Gertrude; spacey and accident-prone Nina (Julia Sawalha) as Ophelia; and former child actor Vernon (Mark Hadfield) as Polonius and other parts. Assisting in the production are Joe’s sister Molly (Hetta Charnley), and set and costume designer Fadge (Celia Imrie).

After Henry V (1989), Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and Much Ado About Nothing (1993), two superb films and two very good ones, Branagh stumbled badly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), which got bad reviews and had disappointing box office returns. Branagh, however, used the money he got from that ill-fated project to self-finance the quickly-made, modestly-priced Midwinter; though that wasn’t a box-office success, either, he not only personally made a profit, but shocked his actors with substantial profit participation, an arrangement parallel to the actors in Midwinter’s story. Joan Collins, gobsmacked, reportedly exclaimed, “Fucking hell!” when handed her substantial share.

The film isn’t nearly as funny, nor even as insightful as The Tall Guy, though theater types will be amused by its many recognizable characters and situations. The dialogue has many funny lines, and while it’s broad like The Tall Guy that earlier film is light and playful, whereas Midwinter at times seems pat and self-conscious. The most glaring difference between the two films is that The Tall Guy is not at all predictable, and many of its biggest laughs are derived from its unexpected plot developments and situations.

Midwinter, by contrast, is utterly predictable playing out exactly how one might have predicted it would, almost from the opening scenes. When Joe gets a last-minute, high-profile offer to appear in a high-paying, high-concept science fiction extravaganza, a job requiring him to abandon his cast on opening night, no less, is there any doubt at all which of the two he’ll ultimately choose? Or that the surly Henry will reveal his sensitive side? Or that gay actor Terry will reconcile with his long-estranged son? Not that Midwinter doesn’t entertain—it has its share of laughs; it’s just that you can see everything coming a mile away.

Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of A Midwinter’s Tale presents the film under that title, in its original black-and-white, 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. It’s a fine transfer, and the DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 stereo) is excellent, supported by optional English subtitles. The lone extra is a trailer.

On one hand, A Midwinter’s Tale is a little disappointing because it’s so predictable and obvious, but it’s also undeniably good-natured and sincere, and as one of director Kenneth Branagh’s lesser-known, early works, it is worth seeking out.

- Stuart Galbraith IV