Kenneth Branagh

Michael Maloney as Joe (and Hamlet) in In the Bleak Midwinter (1995)

Michael Maloney as Joe (and Hamlet) in In the Bleak Midwinter (1995)

  • Born:  1960
  • Rank:  37
  • Score:  610.15
  • Awards:  BAFTA / NBR
  • Nominations:  Oscar / BAFTA
  • Feature Films:  10
  • Best:  Henry V
  • Worst:  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Top 5 Films:

  1. Henry V – 1989
  2. Hamlet – 1996
  3. Much Ado About Nothing – 1993
  4. In the Bleak Midwinter – 1995
  5. Dead Again – 1991

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1989 – 2nd – Henry V
  • 1993 – 4th – Much Ado About Nothing
  • 1996 – 5th – Hamlet
  • 1996 – 9th – In the Bleak Midwinter

It was a daring bit of bravado.  Here was this young actor, not yet 30, who had made only a handful of films.  But now he not only was directing his first film, he was remaking Henry V, a Shakespeare play that Olivier had magnificently brought to the screen in 1944 to help rouse the patriotic ferver in wartime.  But Branagh took a different approach, watching war films, focusing on what Orson Welles did with mud in Chimes at Midnight and he brought out not a magnificent film, the single finest Shakespeare film in the English language, but a brilliant war film that showed the bloody cost of war.  He earned Oscar nominations for Actor and Director and he was Olivier reborn, an actor / director who would willingly bring Shakespeare to the big screen once again.  He sidestepped with the fantastic Dead Again before bringing forth his beautiful, lush Much Ado.  Then he went to Frankenstein, with mixed results, before acting in Othello (a fantastic Iago), then bringing forth Hamlet in two ways – with his small film In the Bleak Midwinter and then his amazing 70mm 4 hour long film version of the complete play.  Unfortunately, since then, he has only twice gone to Shakespeare again, with mixed results in Loves Labours Lost, then beautifully with As You Like It, which, unfortunately, ended up on HBO in the States.  He then remade Sleuth and next up will be Thor, but as he is not yet 50, there is still plenty of time for more Shakespeare from the definitive Shakespeare director.

In the Bleak Midwinter – #6 film of 1996

“When people ask, ‘Why do Hamlet?’, I say all the answers are contained in Bleak Midwinter,” Kenneth Branagh says.  He is referring to his 1995 film In the Bleak Midwinter, a small black and white film about down and out actors doing a Christmas performance of Hamlet in an unused church.  Joe, who is both directing it and playing the lead role decides that his life has a deadline and that he has to do the play.  When told by his sister Molly that it is a bad idea, trying to convince kids to “stop watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and come see a 400 year old play about a depressed aristocrat,” Joe tells her “I saw this play when I was fifteen and it changed my life … It spoke to my heart, and my head, and my chief reproductive organ.”
Midwinter is an interesting take on Hamlet.  It shows the kind of power that the play has, when people are forced to confront issues on stage that they have also been forced to confront in real life (dealing with problems with a child, the untimely death of a loved one), but also shows the kind of humor that is present in even the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays.  More to the point, it shows the kind of humor and tension that both can spring up when attempting to adapt the play, whether for the stage, as in this film, or for the screen.  Joe tells his actors, “I see it as a very dark play,” to which, one responds, “I see it as a very long play darling.  Sally Scissors is going to appear we hope?”  After a read through of the entire play (prompting a comment: “We’ve only got ten days to rehearse but let’s spend fifteen hours reading the whole bloody thing on day one,”), Joe gives them the cuts.  The actor playing Laertes is livid, demanding that four key lines be re-inserted.   These are the kind of issues that must come up behind the scenes during Hamlet films, but something that we do not ever see.  All we get to see is the finished product.  Even though they are a theatrical troupe rather than a film crew, we get the idea of the kind of preparation that goes into making these Hamlet films, which becomes even more apparent when three of the principal actors in Midwinter play important supporting roles in Branagh’s full length Hamlet.

Though not many people have seen Branagh’s full length Hamlet, at least some have.  It has finally gotten a DVD release.  On the other hand, I know of no one who has ever seen Midwinter (released in the U.S. as A Midwinter’s Tale) unless I have shown it to them.  When Michael Maloney came into my store and I told him how much I loved Midwinter, I could tell he was stunned that I knew it.  But it is so brilliant and funny, right from the opening monologue (“I mean I’d always wanted to live my life like in an old movie – a sort of fairytale you know?  Mind you, I suppose if you think that a lot of fairytales turn out to be nightmares, and that a lot of old movies are crap, then that’s what I did.”), up until the end when we discover that one of the actors has gotten the long estranged son of another one to show up at the play by telling him his father had cholera.  This isn’t just a film about Hamlet, its a film about actors and relationships and family and I wish more people would see it.  I wish it would get a DVD release.  It deserves it so much more than most films.

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