Kenneth Branagh made this film as he was working on his inexpressibly larger Hamlet. Shot entirely in black and white, it chronicles the small but meaningful adventures of Joe Harper as he attempts to put on a low-budget, read no-budget, rendition of Hamlet in his old hometown.
Hamlet has four roles in this film. It is the play within the play. It is a catalyst for the players self exploration and catharsis. The successful performance of the play is a personal as well as group triumph for each of the players, and their participation in it allows them to resolve their problems. And the film is a distorted reflection of Hamlet; Hamlet redone as a Shakespearian comedy.
The film begins humorously, opening to its anthem, NoëlCoward's Why Must the Show Go On. It then proceeds through some of the funniest stage door stuff I have ever seen. Throughout, Branagh pokes gentle fun, stressing the over the top craziness of actors and the world of theater and film: “…you’re playing Smegma in the new Sci-fi film Galaxy Terminus?’’ -Nina (shooting script, pg. 114)
However, the viewer quickly discovers that, as the song suggests, there is an edge to all of the players, a revelation that not all is well. This story, like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, has its source in disaster, and avoids being consumed by it only at the last moment. Joe is dependent upon the results of his production to justify his existence, and takes on this project with an air of determined and at times manic optimism tinged more and more with desperation. Meanwhile, the quirky members of this memorable ensemble each have a deep-seated source of pain, sadness or insecurity which is revealed as they work on the play, and as the play seeps into their psyches.
Joe is Hamlet. He is in a crisis of identity, trying to believe that he is indeed a good actor and capable of success. The success of the play will vindicate him as an artist. All he hopes to do is break even, not even make a profit. It is not profit but the doing of the play, his starring in a production of Hamlet by the age of 33 (Hamlet’s age in the play), which is the necessary personal landmark. Without it, he is a failure by his own reckoning.
Like Hamlet being dispossessed of kingship by Claudius, he has lost out on a huge opportunity to a rival actor, but tries to pretend it doesn’t matter. It is ‘some stupid science fiction film’ of which the only merit lies in its large paycheck and potential for exposure. Also like Hamlet, he attempts to orchestrate a solution without substantial assistance. His collaborative experience is not truly collaborative, and as such hovers on the brink of failure. Like Hamlet, he even falls for his Ophelia and betrays her, figuratively kills off all the players by killing the play, and follows a strangely passive path to what can be counted as success but is also failure.
There are two turns of good fortune. One is made by the characters choosing to influence their destinies. The other is good ol’ fashioned deus ex machina. There indeed can be too much of a good thing.
Joe is taken forcibly out of his self-imposed role of solitary director and distant star. He has a moment of utter despair and has a meltdown before the entire company. This moment shakes the rest of the players out of their individual funk and they pull together. They collectively, if temporarily, solve the financial difficulties, and their last full day of rehearsal is a marvel of cohesiveness for a not quite 2 week old production. They also reveal themselves to be quite good actors once they are willing to immerse themselves emotionally into the play.
Just as everyone has reached their peak of satisfaction and excitement over the production, Joe gets the call that he is wanted to replace Dylan Judd in the big Hollywood picture. Unfortunately, he is wanted immediately, and will not be available for the Christmas Eve opening of Hamlet. The company is devastated.
Nina is wise enough to realize and idealistic enough to believe that Hamlet matters more to Joe than a big paycheck. Joe returns at the last moment to perform and the play is a huge success. It is not revealed until after their performance that he had refused the contract, and that Nina was right after all.
What is interesting is what has happened to make this a comedy, and why Joe succeeds where Hamlet did not. Throughout the play, Joe has been working desperately to change his luck, or at least prove to himself that acting is worthwhile and that he as an actor has a future. He has the chance to succeed at this, modestly to be sure, but enough. In doing so, he would also: get the girl; have made several good friends; help save a church and revitalize the cultural center of a town; and generally be able to feel good about himself until the next time. He would also, incidentally, have helped the rest of the company achieve their own successes as well. When Margaretta arrives with what is conceivably the offer of a lifetime, he must choose. What we see instead is his passive acceptance of Margaretta’s insistence that the 3 picture deal has priority over this little production of Hamlet. The other seasoned actors in the group, with their own hopes destroyed and the ashes of their own emotional needs around them, easily agree with Margaretta. It is Nina, the only true novice among the players, who challenges the choice.
Two weeks ago we all met up to start this adventure and much though we didn’t care to admit it we were all in our various ways depressed, especially you Joe. We needed this job, this play, this experience. And all through our ups and downs and disagreements we’ve continued to need it.
Yes, we do, Nina, actors do, but the world doesn’t. Finally it’s Shakespeare and nobody’s interested.
(shooting script, pg. 95)
Nina’s words are telling. They hearken back to Margaretta’s early comment to Joe that everyone is depressed and in one statement offer both proof and a solution. In response Joe reveals that he has not conquered his despair, that he is still in essential doubt.
It is Molly, without prior professional acting experience, who finds an option which at least offers the company a chance to fulfill their own needs. The show must go on, after all:
Then I’ll bloody well do it. I’ll play Hamlet, I practically know it now. It’s better than canceling. Everyone knows it’s a weird production. One more weirdo won’t make a difference. This is our village. It’s our home. We can’t let them down.
(shooting script, pg. 96)
It is also telling that Joe, upon this far from perfect yet sufficient resolution to the immediate problem, is not happy. He does not depart the scene brushing the dust of poverty and insecurity from his hands. The two dearest members of the production are disappointed in him, Nina and Molly, and he clearly has an emptiness where the play used to be.
Carnforth, who has a great deal of experience with disappointment, waits until everyone else is gone to respond to Joe and ends on Hamlet’s words:
Easy on yourself old chap. I’m afraid we can’t all afford the luxury of nourishing our souls. That’s the prerogative of the romantics among us, I fear. These things happen. What does he say, ‘If it be now ‘tis not to come, if it be not to come it will be now, if it be not now, yet it will come, the readiness is all’.
(shooting script, pg. 73)
This is meant to be comforting, but it is also an interesting turn-around. Carnforth comforts Joe with practicality, when we already know that Joe is certainly as romantic and idealistic as Nina, if not more so. He also invokes destiny, when Joe has been attempting to make his own destiny for the entire film. Meanwhile, Hamlet has been described as strangely passive in his behavior, and here we have Joe also being strangely passive as he allows ‘good’ fortune to sweep away all his work. What he hasn’t quite realized yet, and perhaps Carnforth’s words help him understand, is that after all, without the offer from Nancy Crawford, the play would have been enough and they all would have been satisfied. Joe is not choosing between success and failure, but rather two different kinds of success. Readiness is indeed all.
It can be said then, that Joe turns around the entire story and thus his destiny as well as the rest of the company’s by choosing to return. He rejects passivity and chooses to redirect destiny into the path of his own choosing, a classic characteristic of Shakespeare’s romantic heroes and heroines. The immediate result is not only a brilliant production of Hamlet which sizzles with energy, but as fate would have it, Nancy Crawford, denied of her side-kick comes to see the play. And with her is a reporter for the Times. So, while not explicit, Joe’s rejection of fame and fortune nonetheless serves the entire company well with a good review in an eminent newspaper. That their production is also unusual for the season and is part of a special profile, suggests that it will receive more attention as well. Thus all Joe’s choices come out right in the end. That this all resolves on Christmas Eve cannot be considered a coincidence either, and the film ends as church bells strike midnight, the company wishes each other a merry Christmas, and the credits scroll to a simple instrumental version of In the Bleak Midwinter.
If you should have the opportunity to see this film, pay attention to what is happening not only with the characters actually speaking, but bits in the background and off to the side. Everyone is 100% in this work however minute their contribution at the moment may be. Also, the camera is often an overt player in the piece, and the use of black and white is gorgeous.
I find it a little ironic that I actually prefer much of the staging of this Hamlet to Branagh’s film version. However gorgeous that version may be, I find something more compelling about the pared down theatrical version we glimpse in this film. I especially liked how the screen audience is drawn into the action as the actors blur the stage space by descending into the seating area. This is assisted by the absence of intrusive stage design, which is funny considering how painful the set and costume design process is in the story line.
There is one loose end in the plot. How will Molly double for Tom as Laertes for the fencing scene? But they have all of Christmas Day to rehearse….
The one thing I really cannot figure out is how one would cut or otherwise adapt the play to permit one actor to play both the Player King and Claudius. The dual Rosancrantz and Guildenstern is explained, but not the Player King and Claudius.
A Midwinter's Tale distributed by Castle Rock Entertainment 1996, released on video by Warner Home Video 1999. 98 min. Rated R for some language. From the back of the box:
Costume Design - Caroline Harris; Editor - Neil Farrell; Production Designer - Tim Harvey; DP - Roger Lanser; Associate Producers - Iona Price and Tamar Thomas; Produced by David Barron; Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Branagh, Kenneth. A Midwinter’s Tale: the shooting script. Newmarket Press, New York, 1995.
The Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com
and a month obsessing about Hamlet didn’t hurt.