Theatre in Film: A Midwinter’s Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter) (1995)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

October 12, 2016

Welcome to Part IV in Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series. In this installment, we feature films from 1989 to 1995 that focus on interpersonal relationships within theatre — the love, the complications, and the comedy that inevitably occur when actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians share the same space for extended periods of time. We conclude Part IV with the 1995 black-and-white British comedy by Kenneth Branagh, A Midwinter’s Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter).

A Midwinter’s Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter) (1995)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, Hetta Charnley, Joan Collins, Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Julia Sawalha

What happens:

Out of work British actor, Joe Harper (Michael Maloney), convinces his catty producer and agent, Margaretta D’Arcy (Joan Collins), that he should direct a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet during the Christmas holidays in the small town of Hope, Derbyshire, England. It’s a disaster from the moment the auditions start, and the auditioners are anything but normal: a tap-dancing actress presenting an interpretation of the “to be or not to be” speech, an actor who bangs a baking sheet against his head in a madcap chant, and an actor who won’t accept direction after he’s presented a comical interpretation of Richard III. However, Joe finds his actors from the pool of eccentrics and casts his play with some of the oddest yet most committed actors in Hope. (He’s also cast himself as Hamlet.) His set and costume designer, Fadge (Celia Imrie), is a visionary artist whose specialties are “air, space, and fog.” On top of it all, his performance venue is a rundown, abandoned church. Everything is perfect — almost.

Rehearsals are a disaster, with the actors constantly bickering about their accommodations, each other, and the direction of the show. The week before opening, the troupe comes under threat of being evicted by the greedy landlord. In an attempt to keep the show running, Joe moves the show to another church. Their technical rehearsal is complicated by falling plaster and overall confusion, and when Joe tells the cast that he’s signed on to a sci-fi film and won’t be making the opening performance (or any performance thereafter), they’re all devastated. But rather than forsaking his theatre family, Joe returns to the church moments into the play’s first performance and takes back his role as Hamlet, playing to a sold-out, excited, and supportive crowd.

Why it matters:

A quick note: Though this film is in black-and-white, it was released in 1995 and shot in black-and-white for artistic effect. Picture the cinematic British child of Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Noises Off (1992) — that’s A Midwinter’s Tale.

The subtitle of the film, In the Bleak Midwinter, may refer to the Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, that was written prior to 1872 for Scribner’s Monthly. (It later became a Christmas carol in 1906 with musical composition by Gustav Holst.) The poem describes the harsh conditions during Christmas Time that Mary and Joseph endured during the birth of Jesus. Not unlike the Christ Child and his parents, the actors in Joe Harper’s version of Hamlet must bear with what little they have. In their case, they make do with a cold and drafty church, little pay, shoddy props and costumes, food scraps, and the uncertainty of their show’s upcoming premiere.

The lack of a reliable venue (or reliable anything) in theatre is often a serious problem for many theatre companies, especially if they’re starting out or down on their luck. Community productions that are renting an expensive space or amateur productions that can’t find a venue run into the same financial problems that Joe does: instead of paying top notch actors and getting a stable venue, they get actors with little experience and a performance space that may crumble into ruins at any moment. (Though inexperienced actors can be talented, this rag-tag bunch of talented actors are also a bit insane.)

However, in the small company’s struggles to maintain a professional, creative, and collaborative atmosphere, they also find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other’s talents and charms, an experience that countless actors have when working on a production. When Joe, who’s said he’s leaving for a film gig, tells the cast they should be with their families on Christmas instead of working on a play, Nina Raymond (Julia Sawalha), his would-be girlfriend who plays Ophelia, tells him, “We’re with our family! That’s what actors do!” She speaks truth in the face of Joe’s unyielding depression and lack of self-worth, reminding him that an actor’s family is, more often than not, the people they work with on a production. In a field where so many misfits gather together to find acceptance, it’s inevitable that the word “family” comes to describe those who aren’t necessarily blood related. A Midwinter’s Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter) showcases how actors with artistic differences find camaraderie and hope in a world that seems intent on breaking them apart.

This film is the first featured in Part IV of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part IV.


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from A Midwinter’s Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter). Copyright © Sony Pictures Classics 1995.