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Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale is another sweet comic valentine to those batty but lovable show folk. So if you're less than enthralled by the vanities and insecurities of actors, you may as well stop reading this and start shopping for another movie.

Now that half the house has departed, let's point out that the Irish prodigy Branagh has a different set of comic muscles than Woody Allen, so this alternative to Bullets Over Broadway is set in a drafty old church in a remote English village called Hope, where a troupe of down-at-heels actors every bit as quirky as Allen's is mounting--what else?--Hamlet. On a shoestring, no less. And at Christmas. If there's a less likely hit in the history of the theater, it would have to be Springtime for Hitler. As if to underscore the foolish optimism in Hope, Branagh has shot in black-and-white.

Ah, but to the boards. The production's director and star, Joe Harper (Michael Maloney), is a starry-eyed sort who advertises "a profit share and a spirit share" to his prospective cast. Naturally, that brings mismatched, delusionary goofballs out of the woodwork in record numbers: Lofty old Henry Wakefield (Richard Briers) carps on about the mere amateurs in his midst; boozy, amnesiac Carnforth Greville (Gerard Horan) wrestles with the demon that is his mother; half-blind Nina (Julia Sawalha) refuses to wear glasses out of vanity; overwrought Vernon Spatch (Mark Hadfield) loses his characters in a tangle of foreign accents; florid Terry DuBois (John Sessions) auditions for Queen Gertrude--and gets the part.

We very quickly get the idea. The veteran Shakespearean Branagh has even more affection for his brothers and sisters in the theater than for the Bard himself, so their comic psychodramas provide as much grist as Hamlet does: The film's sweet humor grows out of the players' catalogue of weaknesses, to be sure, but Branagh never short-shrifts their strengths: When, in the midst of crises--dramatic and financial--Hamlet actually takes shape, it's a victory no less satisfying than Henry's at Agincourt. If the film's tart humor softens into sentiment here and there, so be it. Theater folk are that way.

The Hamlet cast--all nine of them--is uniformly wonderful, but Joan Collins, of all people, upstages everybody. As Joe Harper's bitchy, breezy agent, Margaretta D'Arcy, Collins is perfection. "I love it when you go all visionary," she tells her client, and when he counters that the show will succeed because the cast is "hungry," she aptly replies: "They're hungry because they haven't worked this century." If Collins's career as a novelist continues to go badly, maybe there's hope for her in the acting field. Just as there is Hamlet in Hope, and plenty of uplifting hamminess in A Midwinter's Tale. Bravo to Kenneth Branagh for the goodness and the wit of his valentine: Is there nothing the man can't pull off with singular verve?--Gallo

A Midwinter's Tale.
Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, Celia Imrie, Gerard Horan and Joan Collins.

 
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