But the movie's gloom is comic rather than horrible, rising as it does from the farcical struggles of an acting troupe to stage a production of Hamlet in a remote provincial town with the unlikely name of Hope. (The sign announcing the village's name has been defaced with the advice, "Piss off!" -- pithy words of wisdom the thespians determinedly ignore.)
Like other creative people, actors are basically nuts, especially when they're living near the economic and professional edge, as most of this crew are. Branagh performs a loving vivisection on the company, exposing, with brutal calmness, each member's long and glorious history of failure, neglect, and occasional, unjustified success -- a hothouse of emotional intemperance in which private idiosyncrasies have grown luxuriantly. The central genius of Branagh's script and direction is to show these odd people in full exotic feather without ever losing sympathy for them; but then, Branagh is one of their number.
The movie's main character is a young actor named Joe Harper (Michael Maloney). With his shaggy hair and etched pallor, he looks like a pass British rock star; like so many young performers, he's caught between the hormonal idealism of youth and the awareness, deepening with time, of the need to make money. He hits upon a plan to do Hamlet in a historic church facing demolition, and with the help of his agent, Margaretta D'Arcy (Joan Collins) -- a woman never without her cellular telephone -- he sets up auditions.
Those who adored Collins as Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Colby, the conniving and oft-remarried doyenne of the 1980s TV trashfest Dynasty, will doubtless warm to her performance here. She's the perfect agent: beautiful, slightly catty, utterly untrustworthy. It's clear she thinks Joe is wasting everyone's time, including hers, by putting on the play, but since she's got nothing better for him to do, she lets him go ahead. Their lovey-dovey lunch scene early in the movie, which ends with kisses and avowals of affection, perfectly captures the phoniness and pathology of so many agent-client relationships. The unworldly client is frantic with every hunger; the worldly agent needs projects -- of whatever sort -- from which she can take her cut.
The film opens with a casting call that's like an English version of Broadway Danny Rose, with one aspirant after another regaling Joe with freakish performances. All the while, he must sit there, smiling, appreciative, encouraging: How much longer, I wondered, can he keep that smile on his face without developing a cramp?
At last, choices made, the cast departs -- in a dilapidated, fuming Audi -- for Hope and its dank, gloomy church. They look like the Beverly Hillbillies, except they're poor -- and British, adept at those verbal pirouettes and jabs that have nothing to do with the balance in a bank account. One of the movie's great pleasures is, as with Masterpiece Theatre, simply listening to English people talk; they handle the language with a lilting precision, as if it were an old, fine violin capable of yielding all sorts of subtle riches.
A crisis erupts almost at once, when the grand old man of the cast, Henry Wakefield (Richard Briers), objects to the casting of a drag queen, Terry Du Bois (John Sessions), as Queen Gertrude. He storms out of rehearsal muttering about "Oxbridge homos," Joe in soothing pursuit.
But, homophobia aside, he has a point: Joe's Hamlet is going to be innovative, for better or worse. The set designer, the bizarrely mystical Fadge (Celia Imrie), describes her plan in a single word: "Smoke." And she means it; the characters enact the tragedy amid the billowing, quivering puffs of a true ghost story.
By comparison to Terry, the rest of the casting is quite conventional. A tightly strung PC vegetarian named Tom (Nicholas Farrel; he played David Mycroft in the BBC's To Play the King) fills a number of roles, chief among them Laertes and Fortinbras; he disrupts one read-through by insisting that it be smoke-free and is constantly misusing his gift for mimesis by giving his characters the most improbable, and heavy, accents.
Nina (Julie Sawalha; she was Saffie in the BBC's Absolutely Fabulous), plays Ophelia; she also falls hysterically in love with Joe -- who of course plays Hamlet. When the picture's moment of truth arrives -- Margaretta's 11th-hour announcement that Joe's been offered a fat movie deal and must leave immediately -- it's Nina who, through her tears, makes the case for theatrical idealism over Hollywood lucre.
Branagh's script for A Midwinter's Tale is light and funny, full of fondness for the civilized lunacy of drama and not without its touching moments. The most moving of these is Terry's unexpected reconciliation with his long-lost son, Tim (James D. White), who earlier had rejected him. Tim appears in the crowd opening night, having been tipped off about the production by a letter from Henry, whose crustiness protects a tender heart.
"You must have said something sensational in that letter," Terry says to Henry after Tim has departed.
"Yes, I told him you had cholera," Henry says, polishing off his champagne.
It's that kind of sharp, English deftness that keeps the picture bubbling even when there's not a lot else going on. Which, for the most part, there isn't. A Midwinter's Tale is an entertaining valentine to a group of little-understood people, and, for Branagh, it's a triumphant if small experiment, without a false step. But, in Henry V, he's already shown that he can handle big themes -- great themes. A Midwinter's Tale is a skillful doodle in the margin of a major career.
A Midwinter's Tale opens Fri, Feb. 23, at the Embarcadero Center in