I mentioned earlier on both Tumblr and Twitter that the only holiday-themed film I'll admit to liking (because I'm generally a surly, Scrooge-like character) is Remember the Night, the 1940 Preston Sturges-written film starring Barbra Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. While that under-appreciated gem deserves all mentions it gets, I belatedly realized that comment of mine wasn't entirely true. There is another film that takes place during the holidays that I'll freely acknowledge I treasure: Kenneth Branagh's 1995 A Midwinter's Tale.
A Midwinter's Tale (released in Britain as In the Bleak Midwinter) is the story of struggling, unemployed actor Joe Harper, who is passionately throwing himself into a Christmas production of Hamlet as a fundraiser to help save his sister's church, and as a way to save himself from a creeping depression about his life and career. Unfortunately, since low-budget Shakespearean stage productions in small towns aren't especially attractive to either audiences or actors, the play is plagued by an often incompetent cast and crew, lack of time to rehearse, and Joe's constantly fraying soul. Which, of course, is hilarious.
As genuinely clever and funny as the film is, underneath is a sincerely sweet tale about a bunch of lonely misfits finding a bit of comfort and purpose in what would otherwise be a desolate holiday season. Joe is especially sympathetic as someone who believes deeply in the power of art to transform people's lives, so much so that he has metaphorically - and possibly, as his breakdown progresses, literally - put his own life on the line to prove it. It's difficult not to be drawn into wanting the play to succeed as much as he does.
Oh, and Joan Collins is in it.
Here's the sad part - this film isn't on DVD. I found some used VHS copies on Amazon, the shooting script, and the three online video clips I included in this post. I remember I first saw it many, many years ago on IFC, so it's possible, especially around this time of year, they're still running it. If you can, see it. What it lacks in finesse, it makes up in humor, heart and conviction.
Update for December 2010! I've just discovered you can now order this film on DVD from the Warner Archive. I'm so glad people have a chance to see this again.