Christmas with the Kranks; Surviving Christmas; Ladies in Lavender

 Christmas with the Kranks

Dir: Joe Roth. The first surprise was that this film is based on a John Grisham story. The second surprise is the films itself. I badly misread the cues in the screenplay in the first part of the film. When the Kranks see off their daughter to Peru to work for the Peace Corps and decide that they will go on a cruise at Christmas by themselves and save money by not having Christmas parties or gifts or house decorations, it seemed to me a very good idea. It was a blow against the commercialisation of Christmas. It was a protest against gaudy festoons and the clichés of 'the festive season'. How wrong could I be? Totally.

Tim Allen (looking severe for most of the film until a final private generous gesture that gave some decency to the story) and Jamie Lee Curtis (looking flustered, pratfalling and trying to cope with her daughter's fist Christmas away from home) are the Kranks. The immediately get the cold shoulder treatment at work and in the street. Apparently, with their decision to forego this kind of Christmas, they are the most self-centred, self-absorbed, un-community-minded, most derelict of civic sense, insidious destroyers of the American way of life. In fact, the Yuletide gruppenfuehrer of their street (Dan Aykroyd) leads the denunciations with a self-satisfied, eyebrow-raised expression of disbelief at this blatant expression of suburban treason. His stormtroopers begin to harass the Kranks. They are sorely tried but stick to their decision. No decorations, no Frosty the 7-foot Snowman on their roof, no lights.

Suddenly, their daughter announces she is coming home for Christmas and you have the fastest re-wind of attitudes in cinema history. They buy desperately, they borrow decorations and a Christmas tree from neighbours (their previous refusal to buy their usual tree is greeted with as much shock as if they had publicly announced they did not belief in God or the Stars and Stripes), Frosty comes out of the cellar and everybody (who had until five seconds earlier were loathing the Kranks) pitches in to help out. Even Santa turns up to celebrate.

In thirty years time, cinema historians could be examining the sub-text of Christmas with the Kranks, seeing it as an allegory of GW Bush's America. Family values are supreme, enterprise is to be rewarded, all decent people appreciate Christmas - even though, with the separation of Church and State, there is absolutely no reference at all to Jesus or the Nativity, it is a completely secular Christmas of good cheer. The production notes tell us that director Joe Roth wanted to explore the 'mythology of Christmas' but this is all he could come up with. It is Christmas without Christ. And if you don't follow what the all-American majority demand, you are pariahs. The review in London's Metro newspaper ended smartly, 'Conform, all he faithful'.

Surviving Christmas

Dir: MIke Mitchell. Released just before Christmas with the Kranks, this festive season comedy seems far, far superior to the Kranks. Although the Christmas mythology, 'Christmas without Christ' is always in evidence, there is one scene with a crib, so, at least, somebody remembered the event on which the celebration is based.

Ben Affleck is the star and 2003-2004 were the years to berate Affleck just for being on the screen. Yes, he is often wooden. Yes, he has accepted roles that made too many demands on him that he could not meet (he definitely could not have won Pearl Harbour), but roles like this suit him best and he does quite a reasonable job here. He is a poor little rich boy who has no one to celebrate Christmas with. He visits his family home, finds what he thinks is a nice family and suggests that he stay with them for Christmas (and sweetens the suggestion with an offer of $250,000 payment).

The comedy (strained at times) concerns his fitting in too well and not fitting in. James Gandolfini seems to be enjoying himself as the tough guy Dad as does Catherine O'Hare as Mum. It is Christina Applegate as the acerbic daughter who starts to spoil the arrangement. You know how it is going to end after all, it is a Christmas show. It is the puzzle of how they get there, along with some funny sequences, that provides the entertainment. A Christmas timepasser.

Ladies in Lavender

Dir: Charles Dance. Ladies in Lavender is set in the late 1930s and, in many ways, it could have been made at that time. Little surprise that it was the Royal Command Performance film for 2004.

Charles Dance, in his first writing and directing work, has adapted a novella about two older sisters living on the coast of Cornwall. He has been well served by his locations, the wild cliffs and beaches with both calm and pounding storms, and by the recreation of an English village of the times with its enclosed way of life. He has also been well served by his cast. The two sisters are played with the expected insight and intensity by Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Daniel Bruehl (Goodbye Lenin, The Edukators) plays a mysterious young Pole who has been washed up on the beach and whom the sisters take care of, bringing out the maternal in them both, but rousing feelings in the sheltered spinster (Judi Dench) that she had never experienced. David Warner is the local doctor. Miriam Margolyes steals her scenes as the down-to-earth servant and Natascha McElhone is the elegant painter visiting the village.

Daniel Bruehl is charming as the young man and soon has everyone, including the audience, under his spell. This is enhanced when it emerges that he is a talented violinist (his playing dubbed by Joshua Bell).

Realistically, it is all a bit implausible. His rescuers do not really try to find out who the stranger is or what his background is - although the doctor is not above suggesting he is a spy because he speaks German - and the ending is like a fairytale. But, for those who can suspend this disbelief and who appreciate the strong leading actresses, this excursion into lavender-land is pleasing old-fashioned entertainment.

LONDON - 13 December 2004 - 1,038 words

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