Trends in movie themes are peculiar things. Sometimes they don't manifest themselves in predictable or expected ways, but they're there right on the screen, looking you straight in the face, begging to be noticed.
Case in point: Less than a week after Dallas' first and only showing of Abel Ferrera's philosophical vampire flick The Addiction--about a grad student whose thirst for blood becomes all-consuming--two seemingly unrelated but strangely similar films debuted. One, Kenneth Branagh's black-and-white comedy A Midwinter's Tale, deals with a small troupe of actors struggling to put on a new staging of Hamlet; the other, John Dahl's Unforgettable, concerns a doctor's obsession with finding his wife's murderer by--get this--using an experimental drug to relive what dead people have witnessed.
Despite their diverse natures, both movies have one thing in common: The force driving each is the characters' addiction to the narcotic of The Unknown, whether a murder mystery or a seat-of-the-pants theatrical production. In the race to keep this theme fresh and absorbing, A Midwinter's Tale wins hands-down, while Unforgettable never comes close to fulfilling its title.
With only five films to his name, Kenneth Branagh has proven himself an adept visual storyteller with an eclectic but singular voice. After his debut with Henry V, he tackled one of Shakespeare's most romantic comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, and the crackling reincarnation thriller Dead Again. His two failures--the ponderous Gothic epic Frankenstein and a nauseatingly bland Big Chill rip-off called Peter's Friends--suffered from dull scripts and no sense of purpose. Branagh didn't help those movies much, but he surely didn't hurt them, either; they were goners before he touched them.
A Midwinter's Tale returns Branagh to a more personal style of filmmaking. It sings of keenly observed truths that can only be culled from a hundred disastrous auditions and well-intentioned but fatally bad stage productions. In it, Joe (Michael Maloney) is an out-of-work actor and director whose hopes of directing a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi picture are dashed when the job goes to a rival. To soothe his tensions, he convinces his agent (Joan Collins, in a sly, mocking performance) to finance a no-budget version of Hamlet to play in his provincial hometown. Because it's the Christmas season, the A-list actors (and most of the D-list as well) are unavailable, leaving Joe with a ragtag troupe of devoted but underused actors whose talents are, to put it gently, subtle. Joe refuses to waver in his dedication to the very idea of a cooperative version of the play, and his passion infects the cast into a giddy frenzy. His enthusiasm does the impossible, turning a group of mismatched people into real actors.
Separating the fiction of Branagh's film from the fact of what it symbolizes is an impossible task and, ultimately, a counterproductive one. You simply cannot disregard the autobiographical aspects of Midwinter, nor should you: that Branagh's next film (and first great stage achievement) is Hamlet; that Branagh interrupted his stage career to pursue Hollywood fame in all its kitschy glory; that Maloney bears an uncanny resemblance to Ralph Fiennes, about whose interpretation of the melancholy Dane Branagh is undoubtedly well-acquainted; or that his leading lady falls for Hamlet much as Emma Thompson did--but that she looks like Helena Bonham Carter, whose romance with Branagh allegedly precipitated his divorce.
Including its opening credits and its old-fashioned soundtrack, A Midwinter's Tale shares much stylistically with Woody Allen, not the least of which are the riotously funny gags and dialogue (upon learning that the "Christmas play" will be Hamlet, one character moans, "Sure, kids will stop watching Power Rangers to come see a 400-year-old play about a depressed aristocrat"), intertwined with the poignantly handled lives of all the characters. He shifts from the outrageous slapstick of a spit-take to touching expressions of love and pathos with enviable smoothness, and like Allen, Branagh, who does not appear in the film, shows both maturity and willingness to rewrite his own history as a bittersweet fable. He puts himself on display within the parameters of a fictional rendering of a life as it ought to be, and it's rather charming to see how modest his conception of happiness is.
The film is not so much an autobiography as it is a distillation of the dynamics all actors endure for their art. It's as though Branagh suffered through all the pain and unrequited heartbreak so that he could deliver this, a Valentine that understands how the same adversity that makes something at times so miserable can transform it into a magical thing, a moment of wonder, that fleeting, ethereal, beautiful memory called the theater.
If Joe in A Midwinter's Tale could be called an addict, then David Krane (Ray Liotta), the hero of Unforgettable, is a junkie--one who's trashy, base, and in the end, undeserving of our attention. Krane is a medical examiner whose obsession with his wife's death (everyone thinks he murdered her and got away with it) acts as a mere conduit through which the truth of his nature--his deep-seated self-loathing seasoned with self-pity--can find an outlet.
Krane meets a researcher--Linda Fiorentino, in a petulant, whiny role that is wholly reactive--who has developed an experimental drug that, when mixed with the spinal fluid of a test subject, can transfer memories from one lab rat to another. It's still unsafe for human trials, of course, but Krane steals it anyway in an effort to solve the mystery that haunts him. As it turns out, the shots don't just trigger the memory (recalled, oddly enough, from a third-person, rather than first-person, point-of-view), but also physically manifest themselves; Krane feels like he's being killed or beaten, just like his victims.
Dahl has directed two of the most compelling independent neo-noir films of the past few years--Red Rock West and The Last Seduction--but he's just going through the motions here. This is your run-of-the-mill sci-fi crime-genre movie, gussied up to look like something it's not, but Dahl can't overcome the inexplicable motivations and decisions of these characters. Why Krane continually injects himself with others' brain juice doesn't make a lot of sense even by the movie's own standard of flimsy logic, and Dahl seems most concerned with just getting it over with. It's all style-by-rote for him now, and he commits the one unforgivable sin of a director: He's as bored by his movie as we are.
Even more puzzling is the convoluted, unsatisfying screenplay. It's difficult to imagine what first-time screenwriter Bill Geddie envisioned when he thought up this story, but it's probably a good bet that he had just finished reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when he saw The Fugitive. He must have thought the two might complement one another. Unfortunately, they do not. Unforgettable feels completely fake: The look of the Victorian medical instruments that Krane uses on himself seem designed for the sole purpose of appearing horrific, like those vile medieval tools wielded by the insane gynecologists in David Cronenberg's creepy thriller Dead Ringers; and Krane employs his putative interest in catching the killer as a mere excuse for continuing his fixation with getting high on other people's tragedies. Yet the deep psychological mysteries that beg to be examined--how a forensic pathologist must feel impotent at not being able to solve a murder committed in his own home, or the invasive, heart-wrenching act of putting himself in his wife's head at the moment of her death--are left unexplored.
If only Unforgettable didn't play it so straight, it might have at least made light of its own hokeyness by winking at the audience. Instead, you begin to second-guess the movie, imagining how Krane might be conceived of as a feminist icon--the only man ever to get inside a woman's head, to know what it's like to "be a woman" (it worked wonders in Tootsie)--or how the film could make Fiorentino the butch hero rather than the mousy, cardigan-wearing shill that she is. It's a wasted effort; the film simply will never be as good as what you can think up for it.
A Midwinter's Tale. Castle Rock Entertainment. Michael Maloney, Judy Sawalha. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Now playing.
Unforgettable. MGM-UA/Dino De Laurentiis. Ray Liotta, Linda Fiorentino. Written by Bill Geddie. Directed by John Dahl. Now playing.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.