After his wretched excess as the star and director of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh wisely turns to a small-scale but sincere salute to whatever it is that makes actors act. Oddly, the star of Henry V and Othello doesn't appear in the film. He confines his duties to writing and directing this warmly comic tale of seven ragtag thes-pians gathered in a drafty English church to mount a quickie production of Hamlet – for which the Bard wrote 24 roles.
Branagh has previously worked with most of the cast, which enhances the film's cozy family feeling. Michael Maloney is first rate as Joe Harper, an out-of-work actor who is so busy pressing his agent, Margaretta D'Arcy (an archly funny Joan Collins), for movie and TV deals that he fears he may be selling out. To restore his faith, Joe cobbles together a Christmas production of Hamlet, with himself as the Danish prince. Since the elite of the theater world aren't lining up to rehearse and live for three weeks in an old church, Joe must rely on enthusiastic amateurs. John Sessions plays Gertrude in campy drag. Julia Sawalha is a ditz-queen Ophelia. Gerard Horan doubles as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And Richard Briers, Mark Had-field and Nicholas Farrel do triple duty – at least. Also along is Joe's sister (Hetta Charnley), who cooks and sells tickets. Celia Imrie is hilarious as a costume designer who can't decide how to dress the cast until opening night.
Things rip along merrily, especially when a Hollywood agent, acidly sent up by AbFab's Jennifer Saunders, stirs up the actors' greedier ambitions. Art, of course, triumphs. It's funny and touching to watch Branagh cheer these humble players. What hurts is the sloppy-weepy stuff he lays on at the end – shades of his dreadful Peter's Friends. Tears seem a bit thick when you learn that Branagh is now doing a film of Hamlet, starring himself and an all-star cast, including Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. So much for faith restored.