A Delightful `Tale' about Cast of Clowns

Article excerpt

Kenneth Branagh evidently embraced "A Midwinter's Tale," a genial and farcical valentine to the acting profession, as a low-stakes, no-frills antidote to the costly, delirious rigors of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." In this case, the decompression project also served as a playful warm-up to his next high-stakes endeavor, an uncut and star-studded and inescapably conspicuous film version of "Hamlet."

Mr. Branagh wrote and directed "Tale." Shot quickly and inexpensively in black-and-white, the film lacks Mr. Branagh as a member of the cast, but he is arguably concealed in Michael Maloney's character: a British actor named Joe Harper who decides to mount a quixotic production of "Hamlet" after a year of waiting in vain for opportunities to knock.

Joe contrives to recruit a skeleton supporting cast of six to cover roughly two dozen roles in a necessarily bare-bones "Hamlet." Substantially cut, with Joe himself in the title role, this hasty "Hamlet" is booked for a limited Christmas engagement in the chapel of an abandoned Anglican church in a London suburb.

The exposition is glib and superficial to a fault, accelerating the audition scenes to an extent that seems to cheat us of generously absurd first impressions of the eventual cast members. This false urgency lingers through an abbreviated first reading. It subsides as Mr. Branagh finally moderates the pace. The characters and cast members start ingratiating themselves with a welcome degree of relaxation and sustained intimacy.

The plot always keeps Joe's undermanned and underskilled troupe at the mercy of limited resources, wobbly talent and a short rehearsal schedule. But appealing individuals emerge from the ensemble and then reconstitute themselves as an irresistibly gallant ensemble on opening night, which turns into a glittering opportunity for several participants.

Joe's agent, Margaretta (Joan Collins), brings along a reluctant American movie producer, Nancy Crawford, setting up a guest star bit for Jennifer Saunders of "Absolutely Fabulous. …