Lost And Found Series: Chapter 11/12: Tis The Season…To Be Folly

Art & Culture

Ho! Ho! Ho! Lost and Founders. Here we are, a very cold but jolly time of year where everybody gathers around the fireplace to keep warm and give each other presents and ready to devour turkeys at the sound of the oven going off. That’s right you have guessed it, it is time to explore the ‘Christmas film’.  However, this week we shall add a slight twist to the mix. It would not be fun or realistic for that matter to be jolly throughout this chapter, because some just simply do not enjoy this seasonal holiday. So my present from me to you is this chapter of Lost of Found will be a double bill. First we shall explore a cheerful and more traditional Christmas film. Then we will discuss a more sinister and darker Christmas effort for those that find the holiday too clichéd and banal.

Now with the exception of Home Alone, The Santa Claus, The Muppets Christmas Carol and Bernard and the Genie (which we may have to revisit another time) I tend to pick Christmas films that would not be considered a typical Christmas film due to their more menacing roots. For instance, as of now my favourites are Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Bad Santa. Christmas films don’t necessarily have to be about the holiday itself, which can merely act as a backdrop to tell an entirely different story altogether. It can act as a motif rather than a character. Which brings us to our film this week…In the Bleak Midwinter or as it is known in the US where it’s actually available on DVD A Midwinter’s Tale.

Film: In the Bleak Midwinter/A Midwinter’s Tale

Cast: Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, Julia Sawalha and John Sessions

Director and Writer: Kenneth Branagh

English writer, director, actor and Shakespeare aficionado Kenneth Branagh had a skyrocketing career, going from low-budget Shakespeare adaptations to studio driven horror classic tales. In 1994 Branagh was chosen to adapt classic horror novel Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He was the perfect person for the job, the studio TriStar pictures showed faith by putting $45million behind the project and Robert De Niro even signed on to play the grotesque monster. The pressure was on. All eyes were on Branagh for him to deliver especially considering his successful past work and love for faithful literature adaptations on the big screen. However, the reviews were a travesty, the audience didn’t flock to see it and the film was considered a failure. What was Branagh to do? Well what he knew best…Shakespeare.

Joe Harper (Michael Maloney) is an out-of-work actor suffering from depression. Going against his agent’s Margaretta D’Arcy (Joan Collins) wishes, Harper decides to put on an ambitious Christmas production of Hamlet at his sister’s local church in order to save it from local developers. Harper somehow manages to get a cast together at such a busy time of the year. Although they may not be very talented they are as desperate and ambitious as Harper, which counts just as much when egos, increasing budgets and personal problems start to halt the production and Harper must have the play ready for Christmas Eve.

Initially watching In the Bleak Midwinter, one may believe they can predict what the film’s following events will be and that it may suffer from stereotypical conventions of films dealing with theatrical productions and being possibly too self-referential. However, what sets this apart from films that have dealt with similar subject matter is the journey it takes to make the audience sympathise and care for all the characters. When characters start to break down, share stories and bond with one another to form a sort of family of their own, even the coldest of hearts would find it hard not to root for them and achieve their goal of performing such an ill-fated play on time and save the local community church during the process.

Branagh’s sophisticated direction and pathos driven writing really excels to what becomes one of the most underrated Christmas films ever made and arguably his most underappreciated effort. Branagh introduces us to the cast of the play as incompetent, desperate people with nothing better to do around the holidays than offer some meagre moments of comic relief and pleasant company to help Harper deal with his depression and artistic crisis. Slowly but surely Branagh lets the audience deeper into the emotions and minds of the zany thespians and starts to answer questions that were lingering in the mind of the viewer. Why are they available at this time of year to do a play for free? Why are they not with their families? Why are they so keen to finish the play? What would they do if Harper took the remorseless advice of his agent and suddenly quit to pursue Hollywood?

All these questions are answered for the most part but through believable back stories, realistic arguments and character development where the story is driven by the characters and thankfully not the other way round. Shot in black and white which evoke an artistic and nostalgic atmosphere, the film tends to feel like one is spending time with friends and family members. The cast are an absolute delight to watch. Richard Briers as Henry Wakefield comes across firstly as a grumpy, miserable classical theatre actor but by the end the audience realises he is the father figure in the group making sure he gives the best advice at the necessary times. Briers has the best lines in the film and delivers them in a perfect humorous tone. Julia Sawalha is superb as the both beautiful and scatterbrained Nina Raymond, who Harper is falling in love with but is too busy to really take notice of her because he is trying to make sure everything is going right with the play. Michael Maloney is an effective lead for the film. We see him at his weakest and his best treading a thin line between rising to the occasion and insanity as he passionately attempts to conduct such a madcap group of actors, which usually ends in amusing moments or insightful outbursts.

So what is it exactly that makes In the Bleak Midwinter such a great Christmas film? Well that would be the inspired message and heart at the core of the story, a group of people feeling low, during a time of year which is supposed to be merry, that bond with each other and form their own family finding a purpose through their passion. It can even be suggested that this idea may have been reflective of where Branagh was in his career, after Frankenstein was not the success he had hoped for and so decided to make a film about what made him realise what his passion originally was…making films.

Film: The Ref

Cast: Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis and Glynis Johns

Director: Ted Demme

Writers: Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss

Forget about all that comfort and joy though. The idea of the Christmas film has been corrupted. What about the other side of the holiday nobody wants to talk about. It has become an expensive time of year that many cannot afford to keep up with. Work builds up, people are more inclined to rob and steal, forced to see ‘loved ones’ you never hear from throughout the year, you force fake smiles to not appear as miserable during such a sickening time of snow and trite Christmas specials on TV. A good thing to come out of all of this though, there are some films out there that feel the same way. One of them being The Ref. It may not be as mean-spirited as say Bad Santa but has enough cynicism to make one indulge in its bickering delight and relish in the enjoyable crass dialogue.

Richard LaGravenese was an up-and-coming writer in the late eighties that found success with Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. He then decided to write a bitter and hostile tale with his sister-in-law Marie Weiss which was slightly inspired on their big holiday family dinners but with a twist. Several drafts were written and eventually taken to Disney studios who snapped the script up rather swiftly.

The film now needed a director and the studio decided to go for Ted Demme, who was known at the time for his unique projects with music videos including Yo! MTV Raps and enjoyable Hip-Hop comedy thriller Who’s the Man.  Demme decided to chose controversial funny-man Dennis Leary as his lead due to their collaboration on Leary’s comedy stand-up special No Cure for Cancer.

Gus is a hapless thief who is abandoned by his incompetent alcoholic partner Murray (Richard Bright) during a heist. Desperate to find a way out as he is now a wanted identified criminal, he decides to take married couple Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage at their home until he can think of a better plan. Soon, Gus starts to think he might of been better off being captured by the authorities, as it turns out the Chasseurs are a non-stop bickering couple with a blackmailing son and irritating siblings. Gus must not only think of a plan to escape the law but also his hostages.

‘The Ref’ admittedly does have hints of warmth and sentimental Christmas moments. Gus acts as both a referee (hence the title) and also a therapist between Caroline and Lloyd. Giving helpful tips and insight into their marriage on what is wrong with it and how they can go about fixing it. The reason why it strays away from being routinely mushy is that Gus does this all the while waving a gun in his hand and the dialogue is riddled with fitting profanity and occasionally vulgar subject matter. There is a lot of arguing going on here…a lot. Everybody disagrees on everything which usually drives the characters and story. Except I cannot think of a single person that out stays their welcome or could even potentially annoy the viewer to the point of negatively affecting the film. Actually Gus’s mother is quite a nasty piece of work. Thankfully due to the skilful and bitter writing by Weiss and LaGravenese everybody in the film is aware of this. After a while they all get fed up with her spiteful ways and the embarrassing way she treats her son in what builds up to be one of the funniest scenes in the film.

The performances are really elevates this film too. Kevin Spacey as the dull and boring husband is exquisitely built up to let loose and make everybody know how he really feels. Spacey shows off his comedic acting skills, and makes one wonder why he didn’t make more dark comedies in the same vein. Judy Davis continues to show why she is one of the most undervalued actresses of our time. Davis doesn’t even need dialogue to keep up with the rest of the talented cast, she can get her snarky thoughts and points across with a mere facial expression.

So one may be offended by certain elements of the dialogue. However, watching a son tell his mother “You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross, so every time you feel unappreciated for all your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it” is simply hilarious and a breath of fresh air. The Ref can be classified as a great anti-Christmas film because while it embraces some of the typical seasonal conventions it also turns them on their head and never settles for less making it more ambition than it initially appears and with impressive results. It manages to be sweet and caring yet callous and daring; something other films have tried to do but failed.