If anybody besides Kenneth Branagh had made it—and this is a ludicrous counterfactual, because nobody else would have—In the Bleak Midwinter would be a trifling little feel-good comedy about underdog dopes who want to put on a DIY production of Hamlet despite being has-beens (or never-wases), all very pleasant, but not necessarily interesting beyond the four corners of the film itself. Because Kenneth Branagh did make it—I could add "exactly when he made it"—it's instead ribboned with a fascinating weirdness, becoming a symbolic autobiography about the relationship between a filmmaker, if filmmaker he is, and his art, and the preemptive despondency of a guy who believes his career is over, his calling is obsolete, and his life fucking sucks. His stand-in threatens suicide a couple of times, not too seriously, but seriously enough that he makes his sister cry.
Here outside of time, we know that just a year later, Branagh would helm what is probably the best-loved screen Hamlet in film history. But, going into 1995, Branagh had suffered some life-altering blows, professional and personal, the former the result of an unreceptive filmgoing public, the latter being his own damn fault, and both stemming from the production and release of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the year before: the movie had underperformed in context with its predecessor, Bram Stoker's Dracula, for reasons that remain opaque to me (though as I supposed in its review, we could blame Mike Nichols's 1994 monster movie for Columbia Pictures, Wolf, not technically affiliated with Dracula or Frankenstein, but surely easily associated with it); as for Branagh's personal life, on Frankenstein he began an affair with co-star Helena Bonham Carter, and that was that for Branagh's marriage to his co-star in all his other movies, Emma Thompson, and I don't know if they've even been in the same room together since. Emma Thompson's mom wouldn't even work with him again.
Bleak Midwinter is not, for the record, very much about Thompson. To the extent Branagh's stand-in discusses his failed relationship, Branagh is, commendably, restrained enough about his ex-wife's private affairs to have it arrive for us pre-ruined, limiting the discussion thereof to a single bitter line about "a psycho from hell." Which obviously doesn't fit in with my imagined picture of Thompson, and presumably not with yours, but, hey, we weren't married to her. I expect it was cathartic. But it does have, as the horrid kids these days say, big divorced energy, sort of suffusing its way through the film; and it could probably not be more about Branagh's apocalyptic feelings about how his life was going. Branagh will tell you it's not all that autobiographical; he'll also describe it as a deliberately minor work. It's surprisingly essential Branagh, though: if, say, Criterion released 1996's Hamlet and did not include this as a special feature, it'd be the most awful omission.
Maybe you noticed, however, that I said the Branagh stand-in: though his sixth film, it's the very first that doesn't star Kenneth Branagh. But even this hypothetical self-effacement only ever emphasizes how much the whole thing is about Kenneth Branagh, so that, if you liked, you could pick at half or more of the dramatis personae here, beyond just his stand-in (Michael Maloney, who'd be Branagh's Laertes), and wonder aloud about what aspect of Branagh's life story they may or may not represent—for instance, the never-made-it actor who took a lot of his parents' money to go to acting school, yet didn't actually manage a career, is easily-enough read as Branagh's guilt that he feels he should reward his own parents' grudging support of his career by pursuing conventional, remunerative stardom, but he doesn't necessarily want to. And yes: this very much amounts to, "so says a man who had already played the lead in two big-budget American films he'd also directed, was presumably rich even back in 1995, and would never not be a fixture in Hollywood." We'll get back to that, and it's not even entirely hindsight talking, though some elements of Bleak Midwinter can make you uneasy, or irritated, or whatever, in context with Branagh's fairly-successful but sometimes-mercenary latterday career.
But I should shut up about what the movie's "about" and tell you what it actually is. So: in a universe rendered as starkly black-and-white, we meet Joe Harper (that's Maloney, but it's also Branagh's mom's maiden name), an actor deep down in the doldrums after a year of unemployment, who's technically in the running for a major supporting role in big-deal Hollywood sci-fi spectacle, though it's almost assuredly going to a bigger name despite the chipper assessments of his agent Margaretta D'Arcy (Joan Collins, not literally the only recognizable face here, but the film's only star of any sort, and intended to feel somewhat alien to this world). To keep himself from going out of his mind, he sets himself to the idiosyncratic task of putting on a production of Hamlet in the half-forgotten English, uh, hamlet of, ahem, Hope—well, your mileage may vary, but I don't totally despise it—in order to raise awareness for the preservation of a more-than-half-forgotten church that he and his sister Molly (Hetta Charnley) attended in their youth, and accordingly have vague nostalgic memories for. In a salient example of Joe's general incompetence, the church that needs to be saved isn't actually theirs—theirs is doing fine—and the one that does is the rundown one on the other side of the village that he's always thought was something of a blight. (And maybe that's metaphorical too: Branagh doesn't really have childhood memories of Shakespeare; as he candidly concedes years and years later in his other semi-autobiographical film, Belfast, what was formative to him then was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.)
Anyway, he wheedles the money out of his agent, secures the talents of mononymical designer Fadge (Celia Imrie), and rustles up, by way of a misspelled and seemingly off-putting periodical advertisement in a trade paper, the scum of England's acting profession, to do an "innovative" Hamlet. His Claudius is Henry Wakefield (Richard Briers, Branagh repertory player, so I assume the film's second-biggest star), a cranky old asshole but at least possessed of genuine acting experience, albeit no experience with Shakespeare; his Gertrude is Terry Du Bois (John Sessions), an old queen who, in fine Elizabethan tradition, shall play the old queen; his Polonius, Marcellus, and First Gravedigger is Vernon Spatch (Mark Hadfield), a former child actor who is no longer even a little young and appears to believe this might be a career stepping stone; his Horatio, Rosencrantz, and, somehow, Guildenstern is Carnforth Greville (Gerard Horan), an alcoholic, and the aforementioned fellow letting down his parents; his Ophelia is Nina (Julia Sawalha), a manic pixie who has curly brown hair like Kenneth Branagh's girlfriend; his Laertes, and so many others that he breaks down crying over the prospect of playing all of them, is Tom Newman (Nicholas Farrell), an actor whose principal method of character creation is idiotic accents, so no points guessing which part of Branagh's psyche he represents even if Branagh did this one on accident. I've implied it heavily enough that it goes without saying that they're an eccentric bunch; I'm sure it would go equally without saying that Joe's Hamlet is Joe. They trudge off in a single car to the church where they will live, work, and put on a Christmas performance of a long 400 year old play where almost literally everybody dies by the end of it. But there comes a time that Joe will have to make a choice—between a community theater play at the ass-end of England that hasn't sold any tickets, and one of the biggest motion pictures of the 1990s.
For all that this is Branagh slicing open his tummy and showing you how his guts are arranged (while, simultaneously, flipping you the bird, but we haven't gotten there yet), it fortunately remains an actual movie that people besides Kenneth Branagh could enjoy. For starters, it's short (99 minutes, and Belfast is about the same; I've noted this before, but this really seals it, that Branagh is uniquely responsible in his self-indulgence). It's also frequently very funny, and if your only data points were Peter's Friends and the first half of this you could reasonably accuse Branagh of actually nursing a secret hatred of actors. (The whole movie has good, funny dialogue, though its single biggest laugh arrives early during the montage of auditions, where Tom claims his fealty to Shakespeare and asserts this particular play's relevance to the modern world with a monologue that begins "Hamlet is Bosnia.") They are pretentious in every possible sense, then, though authentically so; they are, whatever else, more likeable than the Cambridge peer group in Peter's Friends and while he isn't going for the same gut-punch dramatics of that film, Branagh contrives to give at least some of them "real" stories, or at least backstories brought into the light during occasionally-foregrounded subplots. (The most heartstring-pulling rewarding of them, even if it is still handled in something bordering on summary, is Terry and Henry's relationship, evolving from the latter's homophobic disdain into a fast friendship, because the latter is the first to understand that Terry's relationship to Gertrude, the betrayer mother, hits closer to home for him than you'd presumably guess.) All told, and Branagh aside, it's an adorable little Britain-in-the-90s update of that old standby, the ensemble comedy about putting on a show to save a thing—it makes an express nod to Rooney and Garland, and all the ones they made about putting on shows to save a thing, and it might as well, since in Branagh's overweening earnestness, it operates absolutely by Old Hollywood rules. (Joe has, after all, more-or-less already told us that it will in the too-cynical direct address that kicks off the film.) It's hopeful, we could say.
That's the "movie" part, but as for "actual," I could be glib and say that's a nearer-run thing. That would be misleading, though; it's certainly made well. But it is different: deliberately small-scale, not just in scope, but in style—cheap if not ugly high-constrast black-and-white filmstock, blocky aspect ratio, not wholly devoid of camera movement but devoid of almost any you'd really notice, and the credits indicate Jimmy Yuill did "the music" but I'll be damned if I remember any. It's stripped down to a level of minimalism that I'm fairly sure exists nowhere else in Branagh's whole filmography, and why would it? It wouldn't exist in most major directors' filmographies except, perhaps, as their first barely-produced film. That's a little significant in and of itself: Bleak Midwinter is all about starting back from the beginning, and Branagh's directorial career never had a proper beginning; there's no larval stage, just Henry V, a strikingly confident and not-inexpensive period piece that you would have to point to very small freshman errors to assume it could possibly be a debut. So this addresses that absence, avowedly "indie" in its aesthetics (and lower-tier indie, at that), and with none of the more overt things you'd think of when you think of Branagh, even if the punchy editing and infatuation with funny montage, and blocking and lighting that can come off more like a simulation of "rudimentary," could still betray this as a work of a tried-and-tested pro. The ultimate effect is a sort of unadorned but not unhandsome grittiness—it's still shot by a real cinematographer (Roger Lanser), but it does look like the kind of movie these loveable losers ought to be in, and if it's probably a little too polished to believe they could have practically made it themselves, it can nonetheless feel that way—and, in the movie-movie hopefulness it fights its way towards, the way it looks only ever emphasizes the hardscrabble ethos of its characters, alongside its director's desperate need to believe that "ars gratia artis" isn't just some classy-sounding gobblydegook wreathing a lion's head.
There is an exception: once we get to Hamlet, Branagh—as we know him—comes back. (And that's already "Branagh" right there: using a major stylistic shift to completely change the valence of his movie.) Joe's Hamlet marks a formal break, captured with a restless camera and far more intensely-framed action, and with enough cinema-ready flair besides the camera that you could (if you're a little too literal) wonder how Joe possibly managed it, considering that, twenty-four hours earlier, his actors and his designer were barreling towards a farcical boondoggle. There's something absolutely lovely about this dream-Hamlet—the sheer miracle Branagh perceives about a play's production coming together after all out of what so often must seem like roiling chaos—and while there's still some pretty good jokes even here (Branagh isn't above poking fun at "innovative" Shakespeare despite being an innovative Shakespearean himself), it's notable in a nice, dizzy way that several design decisions would indeed be replicated on the far vaster scale of Branagh's real Hamlet. And, if you're looking backward at Bleak Midwinter, you might notice that its best and most consciously-built shots—I'm thinking, very particularly, of the extremely close two-shot in which Terry has his breakdown during rehearsals—might themselves be pre-emanations of the bolder style the play assumes upon its opening night. Smart stuff: snaking throughout the film is the curious device of Noel Coward's song "Why the Show Must Go On" (I guess there must be a score somewhere, but it feels like the only nondiegetic sound in the movie), this being a rather depressed and ambivalent piece about acting and theater; it's strange that Branagh, of all people, would be sadly grappling with the displacement of the theater—and Shakespeare particularly—from the center of English-speaking culture, given that this process concluded roughly about the time he was born and, if anything, Branagh's own efforts to reverse the trend had been quite successful (shockingly, I think his single most profitable movie to date was Much Ado About Nothing). But there it is, and it's basically a manifesto about doing what you love even if no one cares, and keeping the classical tradition alive in yourself, at least, even if your venue is a moldy old church. Personally, I find it very easy to respond to this: I like Shakespeare, but I love that Kenneth Branagh loves Shakespeare this much. Yet to get to its optimism, it does have to ask some really grave questions, such as "What's the point of any of it?"
Frankly, from our vantage point, it might be laid on a little thick. I mean, in reality, Branagh had made a movie that made more than twice its budget back, more disappointing Sony shareholders than losing them their shirts (though its U.S. box office was terrible), and if you wanted to get slightly aggravated by this, I'll allow it: Frankenstein was so not the finale of Branagh's career that they not only let him keep making large-scale movies immediately afterwards, they let him make his Goddamn dream project, the one he'd been building his entire directorial career towards. Nevertheless, we can spot Branagh the very present-tense sensation that, in 1995, he was crossing a bridge over dark waters into a country he didn't really want to live in; I'm uncertain how George Lucas felt about this, because if you look through Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace's Wikipedia page "Kenneth Branagh" comes up all of zero times, but Branagh evidently believed, and I assume he had some reason to believe, that the Star Wars prequels' role of Obi-Wan Kenobi was his for the plucking. 1996's Trainspotting didn't exist yet, and even if it had, I'm not sure anybody ever said, upon beholding Ewan McGregor's starmaking turn there as a heroin addict, "yes! that must be our Jedi master." In any case, Branagh felt that if he did do Star Wars, that was it: he was just going to be a Hollywood actor—maybe, if he got a second chance, a Hollywood director—and, 34 at the time of Bleak Midwinter's making, his dream was on the verge of sliding forever out of reach, thanks to his fixed (and not, I'd say, totally unreasonable) belief that no man should play Hamlet after age 35. This meant that if he picked up the lightsaber—it's important to remember that no one knew the prequels would be dogshit yet, so this would've been the objectively optimal choice—he could never make his Hamlet. Joe is faced with the same choice, but more as a matter of what makes life worth living. There's a contempt for Hollywood and America here that's so pronounced it falls into sneering idiocy—the sidekick character is named "Smegma," for God's sake (or maybe Joe auditioned for Jar Jar)—but at least it's bitterness honestly arrived at, and I can respect that.
There's a lot to like about In the Bleak Midwinter, then, but I think I might admire it most of all—it's an entire movie that could be summed up in the two-word phrase "fuck you," and which seems to exist in no small part to affirmatively burn that bridge Branagh was on, while he was still crossing it. It's a fantasy of artistic martyrdom that came "true" for Branagh, though, for him, with a happier ending. Of course, nothing ever really ends, so eventually he was making things like Artemis Fowl for, presumably, rent money, a movie everyone says is terrible and, legally, no longer exists. That's Hollywood, babe.