A Midwinter’s Tale

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e11 – A Midwinter’s Tale

It’s a Christmas special—or a Winter Solstice special—set before winter break for the teens, which adds to the weirdness because even though Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) said farewell to beau Ross Lynch last episode… turns out they’re still going to the same school. Yes, even though she’s all in on the witch stuff now, Sabrina’s still going to the human high school.

Even though back at the beginning of the series it was assumed if she went all in on the witch stuff she’d just go to witch school. So when she went all in and said her farewells to the humans, you’d think that meant she was changing schools.

But no.

She’s still doing human school during the day and witch school at night. I guess being a witch means you don’t have to sleep? It’s about the only way anything in the show makes sense, twenty-four hours in a day.

The episode’s interesting because it does appear to have been filmed after the first season—so a real holiday special—because Tati Gabrielle’s all of a sudden got a new haircut, which you think Shipka’s going to mention then doesn’t, and the show seems to have realized it didn’t have any phones. There are two ostentatious phone calls this episode.

The initial main plot is Shipka deciding to hold a seance for her mom (a frankly eh Annette Reilly; they really should have stunt-casted the part). Even though everyone tells her not to do it and even though everything Sabrina’s done in the last, say, five episodes has resulted in emotional turmoil and worse for her, her friends, her family, she goes ahead and does it anyway.

And because of the seance, the house gets infected with “Yule lads,” basically invisible gremlins led by witch of some sort maybe Heather Doerksen. Doerksen’s real good.

But the Reilly stuff and Doerksen stuff is all just prologue to Lachlan Watson getting kidnapped by a child-killing demon. Sabrina’s got to save her, with the help of aunts Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto, which is pretty cool because seeing Otto kick ass is fun.

There’s some more with Lynch—Shipka uses their temporary holiday reprieve to… poison his father. For a good cause but still… poison his father.

The show really doesn’t seem to know how to do Shipka “out” as a witch to her human friends. All of a sudden Jaz Sinclair and Lynch are just at the house, even though they never went there earlier in the season and Watson didn’t even know Davis by sight. Even though the episode opens with a flashback to she and Shipka as kids going to see Santa.

Did they not have a show bible or did they not share it with all the writers….

There’s also a resolution to Otto’s adoption arc, which might be the biggest red herring of the show so far.

It’s an effective episode—Watson’s the most sympathetic character on the show—but… with some major qualifications.

In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, Kenneth Branagh)

In the Bleak Midwinter is a sweet movie. It’s kind of a Christmas movie–it takes place at Christmas–and it’s this gentle, thoughtful, sweet but never saccharine or even really acknowledging its sweetness sweet movie. Writer and director Branagh puts a lot of work into the plotting of the film, without ever appearing to be putting a lot of work into it because it’s usually in the background. Because Midwinter is an often uproarious comedy and the comedy gets the foreground. But, in the end, it’s pretty clear Branagh’s made a sweet movie. It’s about a production of Hamlet, but the film itself is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy.

The opening titles has some monologue from lead Michael Maloney, then goes to a scene with Maloney–an out-of-work actor–having lunch with his agent, played by Joan Collins. Collins is great in the scene. She shows up more later, but she’s never as perfect as in that first scene. She helps set the first of Midwinter’s moods. The film has different moods and different narrative distances throughout. Usually they don’t change at the same. Maybe never. But as one changes, the other might react, leading to its change.

All right, I need to explain Midwinter. It’s black and white, it’s about a group of actors trying to put on Hamlet while all living together in this ramshackle church they’re trying to save. Their Hamlet is going to save the church. It’s Maloney’s church from childhood. He’s able to put the show on because of Collins.

There’s a funny casting sequence, setting up the eclectic band of actors. Then they all go to the church to prepare. It’s a big cast–nine principals. Maloney keeps the lead just because he’s directing the play. Hetta Charnley is his sister, who is the one who wants the church saved. She still lives in the unseen town with the church in it. Then there’s Celia Irmie as the production designer (sets and clothes). Richard Briers is the angry old actor. John Sessions is the openly gay actor–Midwinter’s 1995 after all–who’s playing Queen Gertrude. Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Gerard Horan are the male actors. Julia Sawalha is the Ophelia. Everyone’s got distinctive story details. Turns out Branagh doesn’t just want his actors doing comedy–including physical comedy–he’s got some character drama.

Midwinter is really well-written through the first half. It’s really funny, it’s really well-directed. Branagh’s not messing around. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser get some phenomenal shots in the black and white. The filming locations, the production design (from Tim Harvey), all great stuff. But then Branagh gets into the characters and all the actors get this revealed depth to work with. Except Maloney, actually. Maloney’s character arc is something else entirely.

And the movie’s only ninety-nine minutes. Branagh does all sorts of narrative moves in this thing and it’s under 100 minutes. The actors all get these great parts, then they get even better arcs and relationships. And all the relationships are building from scratch because the movie starts before they all meet. So Branagh is building all this stuff quickly and profusely. Nine characters he’s building in ninety-nine minutes. Plus Collins.

Over half the actors give great performances. The others give excellent ones. That latter group gets more material but not as sublime material.

Neil Farrell’s editing is a whole other great thing about Midwinter. The comedy, the character drama, every cut is perfect. Even though Midwinter is a shorter film about a rushed Shakespeare production, the sometimes rapid cutting never seems hurried. Farrell and Branagh always give the actors enough time. Then they cut.

It’s kind of a showcase for its actors, actually. A technically brilliant, marvelously written showcase for the cast. In the Bleak Midwinter is wonderful.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Neil Farrell; music by Jimmy Yuill; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by David Barron; released by Rank Film Dists Ltd.

Starring Michael Maloney (Joe Harper), Richard Briers (Henry Wakefield), Celia Imrie (Fadge), Julia Sawalha (Nina Raymond), John Sessions (Terry Du Bois), Hetta Charnley (Molly Harper), Nicholas Farrell (Tom Newman), Gerard Horan (Carnforth Greville), Mark Hadfield (Vernon Spatch), and Joan Collins (Margaretta D’Arcy).


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