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A Midwinter's Tale
starring Michael Maloney, Julia Salwaha, Joan Collins
Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh

It isn't an unusual story for any wannabe an actor type. Eleven years of struggle. 365 days of absolutely no work at all. Fear and desparation and anxiety so great every sentence rushes out of your mouth like water through a burst dam. Finally, it all becomes too overwhelming and you push yourself to the edge of the cliff and spend every penny you can beg, borrow or steal to stage a show. Starring yourself, of course, all to get yourself seen. To get work.

In the case of A Midwinter's Tale, the chosen play is Hamlet, one of the heaviest of all the Shakespearian tragedies. The actor is Joe Harper (Michael Maloney), who will stage the work in an abandoned, run down church. In the middle of an economically depressed area. With a cast of terribly inept actors, some of whom are arrogant enough to know that the Production has no money and can't get excellent actors to fill the parts.

Oh yeah, the show opens on Christmas Eve.

Which means, of course, that writer/director (but not star) Kenneth Branagh means to deliver a comedy. What it delivers is the funniest staging of Hamlet I've ever seen. The problem is, it takes 70 minutes (of 95, not counting credits) to get there. And the dialog performances of every single actor comes bursting out of the screen like the aformentioned water from a burst dam. If you hold on tight and can make through the cacophony of multitudinous accents, British and otherwise, there are a number of very funny lines and visual gags that burst to the surface.... the hand of a drowning man about to go under for the second time.

At the top, there is a fast-cut sequence of the audition process for the show. Yes it's been done before, at least once I can think of off the top of my head (and probably many more times than that), but it is funny. And then the story becomes overwhelming. Character histories pour out. Cast arguments cascade, rapidly smashing into each other, spewing....

....OK, enough with the water analogies. A Midwinter's Tale is filled with every actor stereotype you can think of. There are vain actors, gay actors, homophobic actors, alcoholic actors, actors who can't remember their lines, combinations of several of the above; all in all a group of professional actors hired by Branagh to be deliberately awful. And Branagh jams so much into that first 70 minutes that A Midwinter's Tale just isn't the comedy it is meant to be.

The theater where I saw A Midwinter's Tale was sparsely populated (maybe 40 or so people) and at least half a dozen of the audience sitting in front of Cranky, walked out. I can't put a number on how many behind me walked out. Cranky sat there thinking <I> when are any of these people -- the actors on screen -- going to RELAX???

And then, the struggling actor/producer/director realizes that his is a failed dream and he overdramatically calls the whole thing off. I'm not giving anything away, it's the oldest story in the book and you see it coming a couple of light years ahead of time. In the silence that follows, everyone relaxes and the movie clicks into gear. The remaining 35 minutes are very funny and entertaining. Had not the setups in the first 70 been so, um, wet (sorry), the resolution of all the character stories would probably have been a lot more satisfying than it turned out to be. Because there was nothing in the slapstick and stereotyped comedic first two acts to make me care about any of the characters.

From TV's Absolutely Fabulous, Julia Salwaha delivers some well-timed slapstick bits throughout the movie. AbFab's Jennifer Saunders shows up in a minor part at the end, sporting an atrocious American accent, and Joan Collins (as the agent) is, um, Joan Collins. A goodly portion of her role has her onscreen solo, even when she is *in* scenes with other actors. To be fair, most of her scenes fall in the first 70 minutes, so Joan drowns like everyone else.

Sorry. I promised no more water. Just couldn't hold it.....

It costs Eight Dollars to see a first run movie here in New York City. If Cranky could set his own price for A MIDWINTER'S TALE, he would pay....


Not the price of a rental, but then again some of the cinematographic effects in this black and white movie are quite nice to see. And there is 35 minutes (a third or so) of the movie that works. It's just a damned hard piece of work to get there.

If Branagh puts as much effort into his forthcoming serious version of Hamlet as he did into the comic performance that highlights the back end of this movie, it will probably be a most exciting thing to watch. We can only wait. And hope.

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