Film review: In the Bleak Midwinter

[This post has been written primarily with English language learners in mind, levels B2 and above. You’ll find comments on the highlighted words at the bottom of the page.]

Are there any films that you watch every single year, as if by habit? Films that have become your personal cult classics and that you traditionally watch on particular occasions? I have a long list of those, and in this post, I’d like to introduce you to one that has for many years been one of my designated Christmastime movies. I first saw it exactly 25 years ago – a whole quarter of a century ago! – and with each passing winter, I love it more and more.

In spite of its gloomy-sounding title, which we’ll come back to later, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a comedy written and directed by the celebrated British actor and director Kenneth Branagh. Released in 1995, it sports a cast of famous names in British cinema, television and theatre, among them Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, Mark Hadfield, Nicholas Farrell, Julia Sawalha, Jennifer Saunders, and last but not least, Joan Collins. It was filmed in a rather minimalist style: it’s black and white, with no special effects. Most of it is set in an old, abandoned country church turned into an impromptu theatre.

It tells the story of a group of struggling actors who ended up in a Christmas production of Hamlet in a small village by the name of Hope. Jobless, lonely, and not terribly good at acting, their careers and personal lives had hit rock bottom. However, during the hours and days they spend rehearsing together, they come to know and support each other in transformative ways. 

Despite the minimalist setting and a pretty straightforward storyline, there’s a lot going on in this film beneath the surface. It’s one of those films where no matter how many times you’ve seen it, there’s always something new to discover. That’s in great part due to many cultural references throughout the film; not registering them will greatly affect your understanding of it. 

Firstly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is constantly in the background, with famous quotes and memorable scenes throughout the film. Then, there are some of the actors themselves: since  Branagh wrote the roles for specific actors, you’ll enjoy the film much more if you’re familiar, for example, with Jennifer Saunders’ character of Edina Monsoon in the hit TV series Absolutely Fabulous (the first two seasons had already been on TV by the time this movie was released), or Joan Collins’ numerous performances of unscrupulous wealthy women, and so forth. There’s a lot of interplay between the actors’ other roles and projects they were working on in the early 1990s (and earlier) and the characters they play in this film, which makes it quite interesting.

Probably the single major cultural reference is the title of the film itself: “In the bleak midwinter” is the initial line of a poem written by Christina Rosetti, first published in 1872, which has since become a much loved Christmas carol (the tune of which you can hear at the end of the film). In the poem, Rosetti contrasts the harsh conditions of a freezing cold winter with the hope that comes with the birth of Jesus, the saviour of the world.

Branagh’s film is set ‘in the bleak midwinter’, literally and metaphorically, in a village called Hope, featuring a cast of losers all very much in need of salvation. And salvation does come, in an abandoned church turned theatre, on Christmas Eve – brought not by the baby Jesus, but by their own sense of empathy and solidarity.

My own understanding of this film has changed greatly over the years. What first seemed to be a somewhat unusual and experimental romcom, now feels like a humanist meditation on the meaning of hope. Well, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be both, and much else besides! Do watch this wonderful film and decipher its message for yourself.

Please share your thoughts below, I’d love to read your comments!

VOCABULARY NOTES (in alphabetical order)

bleak – cold and miserable, dark, grim, dreary

cult classics – typically used to describe books or films that have become very popular among a group of people, attracting a ‘cult’ following of dedicated fans

cultural reference – a mention of something that relates to a culture of a particular society, often in passing

designatedto designate means to officially appoint, name or give title to

gloomy – dark and depressing

hit rock bottom – to reach lowest point

impromptu – improvised

interplay – the effect two or more things have on each other

Midwinter – Winter Solstice; middle part of winter

registering – here: noticing

romcom – short for romantic comedy

sportsto sport here means to feature or to boast

struggling – trying very hard to achieve something, while facing great difficulties

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