In Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale, a dispirited London actor borrows money from his agent and stages a shoestring production of Hamlet in the provincial village where he grew up. Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play is the obvious choice for this play-within-a-movie, an affectionate examination of the often dysfunctional relationship between actors and their craft.

Who better than Branagh, who also wrote the script, to send up the world of Shakespearean acting? Tale’s wry observations on acting in general and on acting Shakespeare in particular have the unmistakable ring of truth to them, as when one of the film’s characters offers some sage advice to actors who have never tackled the Bard. If you can’t remember your lines, he advises, say, “Crouch we here, and lurk.” The film’s protagonist, Joe Harper, uses Laurence Olivier’s autobiography to chart the progress of his acting career, despairing that he falls behind by Chapter 4. (This is presumably not a problem that Branagh himself, who has already published the first volume of his autobiography, is likely to have.) Of course, most of this talented ensemble cast—Tale has 10 major characters—are Shakespearean actors, too. Almost all were students together at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts or perform in Branagh’s Renaissance Theater Company.

Joe (Michael Maloney) hasn’t worked in a year, and settles upon staging Hamlet as a means of reviving his faith in himself and his career. Borrowing the money from his waspish agent, Margaretta D’Arcy (Joan Collins—an unexpected pleasure cast against type), Joe holds auditions for the motley crew of actors interested in a low-paying, Christmastime engagement involving travel to the country and three weeks of communal living. After eliminating the tap dancers and puppeteers, Joe is left with a cast of six: cantankerous Henry Wakefield (Richard Briers), ingratiating Vernon Spatch (Mark Hadfield), humorless Tom Newman (Nicholas Farrell), perpetually inebriated Carnforth Greville (Gerard Horan), flamboyantly gay Terry Du Bois (John Sessions), and flaky Nina (Julia Sawalha). Together they pile clown-car-style into Joe’s station wagon and drive to the little town of Hope. There, joined by Joe’s likable sister Molly (Hetta Charnley) and otherworldly costume designer Fadge (Celia Imrie), the group commences rehearsals in a disused local church.

From the opening scene, in which Joe turns and faces the camera to discuss his midlife crisis, Branagh’s Tale is a textbook of Woody Allen influences. Joe is a classic Allen protagonist, neurotic and tormented by self-doubt, yet nonetheless the eternal straight man. Like John Cusack, who played the Woody Allen role in Bullets Over Broadway, Maloney’s is so obviously the Kenneth Branagh role that it’s hard not to picture the director in the part. (Tale, Branagh’s sixth feature, is the first in which he doesn’t act.) Tale echoes Bullets in many ways; both include a theatrical production that prompts a director to question the meaning of his art, and both have outstanding ensemble casts whose barely fleshed out roles would become caricatures in lesser hands. Not only is Branagh’s film in black-and-white like Manhattan, but it includes a very similar scene in which characters list the little things that make life worth living. (In Tale, though, a player thankfully deflates the maudlin moment with a panicked, “Oh shit, do we all have to do one?”)

Branagh the director clearly relishes this opportunity to tell his side of the story. Tale’s Joe is predictably caught up in the backstage drama that comes of trying to get an eccentric group of people to do what he wants them to do. Of course, Branagh also tends to wax romantic on the notion of acting, as when Joe assures his agent that his band of misfits will come through in the end because they all share “the passion.” The woman who sings Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” in lieu of a reading, the man who wants to play Gertrude in drag, and the guy who explains that, cosmically speaking, “Hamlet is Bosnia…geology…my grandmother” are among the passionate actors that Joe hires. Tale devotes a telling amount of time to establishing the director as a sort of baby-sitting diplomat, whether he’s indulging one actor’s insistence on a smoke-free read-through or another’s on fleshing out his characterization with a large prosthetic nose. The director has a good comic ear for sniping and repartee, but a lesser-known fondness for slapstick. Tale gets a surprising amount of mileage out of unsophisticated gags, such as the fact that everyone keeps calling Henry “Harry” or that Nina refuses to get glasses, even though she can hardly see without them. (At one point, she even has a scene in a large head bandage.)

As anyone who’s ever worked on a theater project knows, every production is a fascinating study in interactive sociology. Branagh takes this a step further, positing his little troupe as a microcosm of society in general. But he runs into trouble whenever he reaches for Big Statements. There’s a reason, for example, that the actors are performing in an abandoned church: Drawing a parallel between art and worship, the film points out that both theater companies and churches “close because people don’t want them.” The production is staged in the city of “Hope,” where saving the church and getting townspeople to the play are projects undertaken for the civic good. Here and elsewhere, Branagh has a tendency to keep making his points long after they’ve been made. By the time Joe tells his cast that he’s sure they’d rather spend Christmas with their families, the reply, “We are with our families” has long been obvious. After all, the infantalized actors didn’t spend the whole film sleeping under Elmo and Snoopy blankets for nothing.

Never a master of the light touch, Branagh the screenwriter has not yet learned to give his audience much credit. The play’s overly schematic ending is a case in point: Suddenly fearful that his point will go undetected, Branagh starts handing out pep talks all ’round and slapping couples together as if the film were Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. His least ambitious point—that life’s meaning lies in its small rewards—is the only one he makes successfully. The group’s eventual goodwill might have been more convincing if it hadn’t been quite so unanimous.CP