Looking back at Kenneth Branagh’s In The Bleak Midwinter

Simon looks back at the funniest Christmas movie you've never seen, Kenneth Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter...

If you’ve never heard of In The Bleak Midwinter, then you’re not in the minority. Released as A Midwinter’s Tale in the US, the film has had a small cinema release in the UK back in 1995, one VHS release, and it hasn’t appeared on DVD or Blu-ray. In the US, the only way you can get hold of the film – as we did – is to pay for the excellent Warner Archive service. The DVD you’ll get through the post has no frills to it, but there’s a decent print of a film that’s devilishly hard to track down.

It’s a real pity that it’s such a rarity too, as there’s so much to recommend about it. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, the basic premise of the film is about a bunch of out of work actors putting on a fund-raising production of Hamlet that opens on Christmas Eve.

It’s centred around Michael Maloney’s Joe, who – much to the disappointment of his agent (played by Joan Collins) – decides to do something about his dwindling spirits, and answer a call from his sister to help save the local church in her village.

A fundraising production of Hamlet isn’t quite what his sister had in mind, but that’s what she gets. And courtesy of some very funny auditions (put together in a pre-X Factor era, that now look extremely prescient), Joe assembles his acting company. All the while this is going on, Branagh is both generating laughs, and arming himself with all the ammunition he needs to affectionately yet mercilessly pull the leg of a bunch of luvvies (he reportedly wrote parts specifically for his actors). He succeeds in doing so. 

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In The Bleak Midwinter is a micro budget production, shot entirely in black and white (although that wasn’t a choice dictated by money), and there’s a sense that, as a director, Branagh was influenced a little by Woody Allen in his economical approach (Branagh would work with Allen on Celebrity a few years later, also shot, coincidentally enough, in black and white). Branagh came to the project after his commercially disappointing big budget adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it’s a project of pretty much opposite scale.

In The Bleak Midwinter could in itself be a stage play, it’s that compact. It’s centred around one set (with the odd exterior), namely the ageing church interior itself, and shot with a fixed camera. The gold, then, comes from the writing, and the company of actors keen to join in the fun, with Branagh keeping the direction of the film relatively straightforward.

Chief amongst the actors, with arguably his best big screen performance to date, is Richard Briers. If there’s one reason that towers above all others to seek In The Bleak Midwinter out, it’s the breathtakingly funny masterclass that Briers offers in how to deliver a snappy one-liner. Branagh’s script loads the proverbial gun, Briers fires it. “Let’s face it, you’re lucky to have me”, he says right near the start Too true.

Briers’ character is, at first glance, the cliched classical actor, only in on the production because he’s always wanted to play the king in Hamlet. This, it seems, is his last chance, and for the first (and best) half of the film, his grumpiness is firmly at the fore. 

“We’ve covered the play”, Joe positively says mid-way through rehearsals. “In shit”, Briers cuts in, without blinking. “The entire British theatre system is dominated by the class system and a bunch of Oxbridge homos” he rages at one point. “I can always sleep with my arse in a bucket”, he eventually concludes. They’re words that could fall flat, or worse, in other hands. Briers pitches them perfectly.

It’s not just his words, either. The moment when he realises who’s playing his queen in the play is exquisite.

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Briers does well to emerge on top of a cast full of scene-stealers, though. Not far behind him is the always-wonderful Celia Imrie, here playing a character named Fadge. Fadge is in charge of set design and costumes, and the scene where she unveils her vision for the set is both terrifically framed by Branagh, and very, very funny. As is Fadge’s solution for empty seats in case of unsold tickets (thus saving a few valuable quid on extras for the film too). The scene she shares with Julia Sawalha, though, where she reveals the name she allows her close friends to call her, is brilliant. Not least because of Sawalha’s caring, yet curt, riposte. “It’s slightly harder to say than Fadge, but it’s beautiful”, she sympathetically notes.

The gag surrounding Sawalha’s character is that she can barely see, but won’t admit it. If you can smell a pratfall coming the minute you read that line, then treat yourself to a bonus point. In The Bleak Midwinter is a film more about verbal than physical comedy, but Branagh’s happy to pick up the extra laughs where he can. It’s a shame Julia Sawalha didn’t pick up more comedy film roles, as there’s plenty she has to offer (a brief cameo from her Absolutely Fabulous co-star, Jennifer Saunders, isn’t as successful sadly, thanks to a not-altogether-convincing American accent). 

It’s worth noting too that John Sessions has a rare film role here as well, albeit one with a slightly clunky-feeling subplot, to help give the film a more rounded ended. He’s the self-confessed camp actor, whose explanation of theatrical camp and banter over dinner is another of the film’s many highlights.

What underpins In The Bleak Midwinter, though, is a clear love of the text of Hamlet. Not to the point where Branagh is in preach mode, rather that he knows what areas he can mine his comedy from, and sets about doing so. The central premise, that a small bunch of people can put on an unlikely, low budget production has an inevitable parallel with the film.

It’s not an entirely successful film, and the bulk of the best jokes are loaded into the front half of it. The setup is wonderful fun, and it’s superior to the eventual complications that threaten the eventual production of Hamlet. A sub-plot involving a potential blockbuster film role for Joe, for instance, is understandable on a narrative level, but it does feel like it’s getting in the way of the fun. 

But if In The Bleak Midwinter runs out of steam as it heads towards the end of its second act, it still has a fair amount left in reserve come the big production itself. It rounds off one of the funniest movies on the 90s, bluntly, albeit one that very few people have ever heard of.

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From here, Branagh would finally embark on bringing Hamlet to the big screen, which would be far more successful that his Frankenstein project (earning him a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination). More recently, of course, he’s hit the Hollywood directing big time with Thor, and he’s hard at work on the Jack Ryan reboot. It’d be terrific if he could find space, though, for a project like this again.

It’s not the easiest Christmas film to find, and nor is it particularly festive in tone. But if you’re looking for a different, Yuletide-themed movie to try, do try and track a copy down. 90s movies really don’t come much funnier.

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