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Stage Play

Why, indeed, must the show go on? This question is of more than academic interest to Joe Harper (Michael Maloney), a high-strung, chronically unemployed British actor who desperately wants to stage a showcase production of Hamlet -- with, of course, himself in the title role.

Unfortunately, Harper can afford only six actors to perform the play's 24 other parts. Even more unfortunately, his open audition attracts such unlikely Shakespeareans as a manic ventriloquist, a hand puppeteer and a mime who dances her way through "To be or not to be."

This is hardly the most auspicious of beginnings for a theatrical enterprise. But it is a very promising start for a delightfully witty movie. Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale is at once spoofy and celebratory in its depiction of actors who have more gumption and dedication than talent.

Branagh wrote and directed A Midwinter's Tale as a small-budget, black-and-white labor of love, and his form suits his content perfectly. Like Harper, who winds up staging his Hamlet in the drafty old church of a village called Hope, Branagh makes do with the bare essentials, denying himself even the benefit of his own star power. Reportedly, he worked on the script over a four-year period. But the film has the air of something that was conceived, produced and cut together in a single burst of creative energy. In short, it's a merry romp.

The actors who join Harper on his misadventure are a diverse lot, ranging from seasoned hams to awkward novices. Very much in the latter category is Nina Raymond (Julia Sawalha), a nearsighted young woman who wants to play Ophelia as a wailing hysteric. Since she refuses to wear her eyeglasses on-stage, Raymond has an unfortunate tendency to turn her dramatic entrances into pratfalls. But she means well, and works hard.

Tom Newman (Nicholas Farrell), the actor who plays Laertes, Fortinbras and assorted messengers, works equally hard at devising colorful accents to differentiate his characters. Trouble is, it isn't always easy to understand what he's saying when he uses one of those accents. And even when he's speaking off stage in his own voice, he sometimes remains incomprehensible. "Hamlet isn't just Hamlet," Newman announces at his audition. "Oh, no. Hamlet is me. Hamlet is Bosnia. Hamlet is this desk. Hamlet is the air. Hamlet is my grandmother. Hamlet is everything you've ever thought about E."

After that windy pronouncement, it seems a miracle -- or, at the very least, a measure of Harper's desperation -- that Newman is hired. But, then again, Raymond is hired after her audition, which consists of a herky-jerky dance to Blondie's "Heart of Glass." Impoverished directors, like beggars, can't be choosy. Harper is so hard up for experienced performers that he agrees to hire Terry du Bois (John Sessions), an exuberantly effeminate gay actor, to play Gertrude.

Henry Wakefield (Richard Briers), the cantankerous character actor cast as Claudius, sincerely believes that "the entire British theater is dominated by the class system and a bunch of Oxbridge homos." So you can imagine the joy he feels when he learns that he must share living quarters with du Bois. During the three weeks of rehearsal, these mismatched roommates develop a ferociously funny give and take. But if you're genuinely surprised when they finally become good buddies E well, all I can say is that you really need to get out to the movies more often.

Carnforth Greville (Gerard Horan) is hired to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a challenge that likely would drive him to drink even if he weren't already a serious drunk. And Fadge (Celia Imrie) -- or "Fa," as she likes to be called -- spends a great deal of time worrying over her costume and set designs. So much time, in fact, that even the ever-patient Harper begins to wonder if she'll finish in time for opening night.

Branagh allows everyone involved in A Midwinter's Tale to have a fair share of snappy one-liners and dumbstruck reaction shots. But the funniest scenes tend to be those that have the flavor of events experienced firsthand, or at least viewed up close, and then re-created with only a slight bit of affectionate exaggeration. At one point, Harper tries to coax the right response from Greville by encouraging the actor to rely on "sense memory." What happens next is so funny, and yet so logical, that it's hard to shake the suspicion that Branagh didn't see (or do) something just like this at some point in his salad days on the British stage.

In the excellent ensemble cast, the only false note is struck by Jennifer Saunders (of TV's Absolutely Fabulous), who plays a Hollywood agent with a Texas accent that couldn't be any less convincing even if she tried. And if she did try, well, the joke didn't work. Fortunately, in this spirited comedy, just about everything else does. -- Joe Leydon

A Midwinter's Tale.
Directed by Kenneth Branaugh. With Michael Maloney, Julia Sawalha and Richard Briers.

Rated R.
95 minutes.

 
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