Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale for Christmas (Laserdisc/ DVD comparison)

Happy holidays, everybody! After the last couple horror and cult titles, I thought we could lighten our spirits with a gentle faux-Shakespearian comedy by Kenneth Branagh: 1995's A Midwinter's Tale. This is a film that fans had been pestering to get on DVD for ages, Apparently, the fullscreen VHS was fairly abysmal. But it took until 2010 for Warner Bros to finally release it as part of their Archives MOD collection. I was a little less fussed about the whole thing, since I owned the old 1997 laserdisc from Columbia Tri-Star, which was nice and widescreen. But I'm also always happy to upgrade my old laserdiscs to a more convenient format when I can. So I thin this would be the perfect time to compare our two viewing options of this quiet Christmas film.
I used the term "faux-Shakespearian" because this isn't actually another of Branagh's impeccable Shakespeare adaptions along the lines of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, or Love's Labour's Lost. There is no Shakespeare play called "A Midwinter's Tale." Instead, this is a small, cheerful comedy about an eccentric but mostly determined group of actors who assemble to stage a production of Hamlet on Christmas Eve. Of course things go wrong, people fly in all directions, and of course everybody learns to work together and pull it off in the end.
Originally titled In the Bleak Midwinter, it's a small, privately financed black and white comedy made partially as a break from the studio system after 1994's Frankenstein, feeling sort of like Branagh's Clerks, with simple stagey shots (the stills look impressive here, but you'll find the camera never moves, just settling on a set-up and staying there for minutes at a time), campy jokes and an ensemble of colorful characters played largely the supporting actors from his previous films. Besides his alumni, though, there are also fun turns by Joan Collins and Absolutely Fabulous's Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha. It's not a masterwork like some of Branagh's grander accomplishments, but it's an agreeable little comedy I can't imagine many people disliking, and one you can easily forget and return to again and again.
Columbia Tri-Star's 1997 laserdisc on top; Warner Bros 2010 DVDR below.
So, I wasn't as excited as most fans about Warner Bros putting this out in widescreen since I already had it that way on the laserdisc; but I have to say their disc does look better. The AR is roughly the same on both discs - the laserdisc claims 1.85:1 on the back, but is more like 1.80:1, and the DVD is 1.78:1. But Warner Bros manages to find more picture on all four sides. The DVD's an MOD, so you have to expect softness and compression, but the black and white probably helps the file size, so they get away with a bit more. This could probably look crisper in HD, but the grain looks fairly grainy and detail is definitely more refined than on the laser. Edges look artificially enhanced on occasion, reminding us we're in Standard Definition Land; but for an MOD it's pretty good.
The laserdisc had nothing by way of extras, so I wasn't too surprised by all the online reports of Warner Bros' DVD being entirely barebones as well. Being a DVDR, it doesn't even have smart chapter stops; they're just every 10 or 15 minutes, and the menu's completely generic. It's not entirely a wasteland, though, as neither the case nor posts I've read about this disc mention it, but it does have the film's trailer on it, which even the laserdisc didn't have. So that's nice. On the other hand, the laser had closed captioning, while this DVD has no subs or anything. Still, hey, the trailer's nice. And it's got better cover art, because whose ever idea it was color everybody's glasses yellow on the laserdisc cover really ought to take some vacation time.
So sometimes Kenneth Branagh makes great films, and sometimes he makes fun things to catch on cable one night. This falls into the latter category, but it's once of his best out of that secondary tier. The only disappointing thing about this being an MOD as opposed to a proper, wide release DVD is this isn't likely to drop super low in price. Because this would be a perfect title to pick up cheap in a sale, and it would maybe even gradually grow a broader audience. As it is, you have to really want it. But it's a Christmas film, and we certainly need more of those that aren't schmaltzy and terrible, so it just might be worth it.

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