A “let’s put on a show!” approach is brought to a provincial church production of “Hamlet” to deleterious effect in “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Further evidence that Kenneth Branagh treads into the 20th century onscreen at his own peril, this small-scale, putatively comic meditation on the anxieties and joys of the theatrical life says nothing fresh about the artistic process and manages to be coy and grating in doing so. Lack of amusement value and largely no-name cast, coupled with deceptive title, spells a bleak B.O. season indeed.
In theory, Branagh, with his vast store of experience running his own theater company, should be as qualified as anyone to tell a backstage story. Inspiring further promise is his own great success as Hamlet, ensuring that he knows the play in and out.
But from the outset, it is apparent that the writer-director has decided to adopt a cutesy, antic attitude toward the obviously personal material.
With no money or support system, out-of-work thespian Joe Harper (Michael Maloney) decides his time has come to play the melancholy Dane. He secures the unlikely encouragement of his high-powered agent (Joan Collins).
Casting the entire play with six unusual suspects — including a drunk who will play both Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern, an insecure scatterbrain for Ophelia and a campy female impersonator as Queen Gertrude — Joe leads his ragtag troupe off to his native village of Hope, where, in just three weeks, they will debut their production in an abandoned church.
Eating communally and sleeping in tiny former nuns’ chambers, the proud but far from adept thesps stumble through early rehearsals, at no point displaying the slightest talent or indication that a presentable production might be in the works.
An unexpected dilemma throws a melodramatic monkey wrench into opening night, a device meant to provoke the viewer to ponder the relative weight of art and commerce in an actor’s life. But none of this is a problem compared with the artificiality of tone, off-putting hyperactivity of the performers and staleness of the gags and ideas.
Branagh divides the action into acts with titles like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and feels compelled to end his scenes with punch lines, almost all of which drop with a clamorous thud. The characters are none too interesting, and the denouement, with a Hollywood producer (preposterously caricatured by Jennifer Saunders) in attendance, is more convoluted than convincing.
Pic’s one becoming aspect is its modesty; lensed quickly on a low budget, it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. But “Bleak” utterly lacks the urgency and passion that one normally associates with a film a director simply has to make at any cost, just as it lacks the insights and acute observations one would like from a real insider.
Technically, effort is OK, although shooting in black-and-white adds nothing appreciable here in terms of mood or resonance.