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Holiday Movies with Meaning

December 15, 2011

It’s almost Christmas, and every time you turn on the TV, there they are: the holiday movies that threaten your blood glucose levels with their syrupy scripts and relentless cheer. Or worse, movies that cheer on consumerism and Yuletide greed. If you feel you’ll scream if you see a single scene from It’s a Wonderful Life or Deck the Halls again, try one of these films instead. They offer a dose of reality, a change of pace, and some genuine substance. The Grand Rapids Library system has copies of some of the films featured here.

Frozen River

Two women, one White and one Mohawk, share a single problem: poverty. Melissa Leo plays Ray, a single mother desperately trying to make the last payment on a mobile home. Her gambler husband left her, stealing all of her savings. If she can’t come up with four thousand dollars by Christmas, she loses everything. Lila, played by Misty Upham, is trying regain custody of her child but is in trouble with the tribal police.

They team up as smugglers, transporting goods in terrifying trips across the frozen St. Lawrence between New York State and Quebec. But what Ray and Lila don’t know when they accept the job is that the illicit goods are human—immigrants who are entering the country in the vehicles the women drive. These two have already tried everything legit to get their lives on track. In the constant rejections and humiliations they face, you see the whole story of what it means to be a working class American today. But in this job the risks become more formidable with each trip they make across the frozen river.

One of the best features of this movie is its realistic portrayal of the Mohawk Nation and culture. These Indians aren’t ennobled or demonized; they are just people carrying on as best they can. And Melissa Leo’s Oscar-winning performance as Ray is unforgettable. This is a Christmas movie about class inequity and the desperation of poverty. But it also shows how Ray and Lila never lose track of what’s truly important. They hang onto their integrity—even when it seems like a luxury they can’t possibly afford.

The Holly and the Ivy

Made in the early 1950s, The Holly and the Ivy was a startling film when it was released, and it still has power to move viewers today. Amidst the hypocrisy of the Fifties and the ghosts of World War II losses, this film dared to portray a family with serious problems—and a vicar’s family at that.

Sir Ralph Richardson plays an Anglican priest whose grown children return home for Christmas. Each of them has a grudge against their saintly father. Jenny wants to go to South America with her lover, but feels her father, a widower, would be lost without her.  She wants her other sister, Margaret, to take over as her father’s caregiver. But Margaret has a secret she’s hidden from the family, certain that her minister father would never forgive her for it. She’s also becoming an alcoholic in an effort to forget her past, and in one scene passes out on the floor during a Christmas Eve gathering. Their younger brother, played by Denholm Elliot in one of his first film roles, is hostile and angry because he knows Margaret’s secrets and feels he can’t be honest with his father to try to fix things.

Today, this film may seem more mainstream, but when it was released, it was shocking in its frank portrayal of defiance of authority, the hypocrisy of conservative Christian values, and its lessons about how concealing the truth undermines relationships. This is one of Richardson’s best performances. He portrays someone who put so much zealous effort into his work that he neglected the needs of his own children. His remorse on finally realizing that is wrenching to watch.

The great Irish stage actress Maureen Delaney as the vicar’s plain-speaking sister is an acidic foil to the rest of her clammed-up and overly polite family. The Holly and the Ivy is shown every Christmas in the UK, but it’s hard to track down here in the States. It’s worth the effort if you can find it. 

Babette’s Feast

If an artist is unable to create, is that person still an artist? It’s the central question of this simply told tale, set just before Christmas 1885 in Denmark’s remote coastal region of Jutland. We learn that years ago, two daughters of a seemingly benign but actually repressive and selfish minister were prevented from marrying their suitors. Years later, both men play parts in the aging sisters’ lives. One sends a refugee their way—a Paris Communard whose revolutionary activities have put her life in danger. The other suitor returns at the very end of the film to attend a holiday dinner party held in honor of the departed minister’s 100th birthday.

Babette, the Frenchwoman who found shelter working as a servant in Denmark for the two sisters, begs them to allow her to cook a “real French dinner” for the party. She has just won the Paris lottery, and asks to pay for the feast herself. At first, the viewer thinks this is a charitable gesture, but in fact Babette wants no constraints on her vision for the meal. For, as it turns out, she had been the head chef at Paris’s most celebrated restaurant—an unheard-of position for a woman of the time. And after all the years of cooking ale-bread and dried fish fillets for her Danish employers, she longs to express herself again as a chef and an artist.

Babette’s Feast offers profound subtexts. The two sisters and their church members sing a hymn which says no father would give a stone to his hungry child—but that’s exactly what their father has done to them. They are shadows of the adults they might have been had they not been chained to his ambitions. Babette is deprived in another way—bereft of her husband and son, revolutionaries who were executed as the Paris Commune collapsed, she has been wrenched away from her life’s work. But she allows herself for one night to be the person she once was.

When the sisters discover that Babette has spent all her lottery money on the meal, they are horrified that she is once again poor. Babette says simply, “An artist is never poor.” The holiday gift all three main characters receive is finding they still, despite everything, can share in the transforming power that great art brings to those who encounter it.

A Midwinter’s Tale

In the 1990s, Kenneth Branagh directed a game-changing, four-hour-long version of Hamlet which did not receive much attention in the States. But A Midwinter’s Tale, which he wrote as an antidote to all of the headaches he endured while directing his epic Hamlet, shows how the production nearly drove him insane.

A Midwinter’s Tale opens with Joe Harper, an out-of-work actor, explaining how he decided to direct a cooperative ensemble version of Hamlet: “It was late November, I think, and I was thinking about the whole Christmas thing: the birth of Christ, the Wizard of Oz, family murders—and quite frankly, I was depressed.”

During the course of the two weeks’ of rehearsal, leading up to the actors’ Christmas Eve debut, a testy bigot is forced to room with an openly gay actor. The gay man is grieving over rejection from his son, the product of his one and only heterosexual encounter. A former child actor is desperately trying to cast off his fame so he can play adult roles. An alcoholic struggles with his addiction. A gun-shy costume designer tries to regain her artistic confidence. Joe’s witch of an agent hounds him over the telephone on a daily basis. And, as Joe’s sister points out, selling Hamlet as a Christmas play to the locals is not going so well. (“Hello, kids…come and watch a four-hundred-year-old play about a depressed aristocrat.”)  Branagh’s use of social issues such as consumerism, substance abuse, and prejudice against LGBTQ people is direct and pointed.

It could have been cheerless, but in the hands of Branagh and his script, this is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. Michael Maloney is hilarious as the distracted director who doesn’t even have time to rehearse his role as Hamlet because he’s soothing egos, playing referee, and begging the designer to present her set and costume designs—which she can’t force herself do until the last rehearsal. John Sessions is campy, caustic, and heartbreaking in turns as the gay actor who is cast as Queen Gertrude (“I travel with my own tits”). Richard Briers, Julie Sawalha, and Nicholas Farrell are equally wonderful.

As you watch this group of actors work through their problems and prejudices to find ways to accept each other, you realize you’re watching a version of a dysfunctional family at Christmastime. And the fact that they communicate with zingers worthy of Monty Python makes it all the more enjoyable.


It is days before the UK changes its currency from pounds to Euros. Main character Damian explains, “The French have said au revoir to the franc, the Germans have said auf wiedersehen to the mark, and the Portuguese have said… whatever to their thing.” People are madly exchanging the soon-to-be-worthless pounds into Euros, and doing quite a bit of compulsive holiday shopping as they do.

At this end-of-an-era moment, Damien is hit with a bag of money falling out of sky, a bag containing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Bank robbers have tossed the bag off a train, and it lands on Damien’s playhouse. And so begins the dilemma of the film: what should happen to the money next?

As it happened, director Danny Boyle jumped the gun on this film: the UK backed out at the last minute and decided to keep the pound sterling as its monetary unit. But that doesn’t detract from the message of the movie: that money is a toxic substance which changes people in unpredictable ways, and usually for the worse. Funny and moving in turns without resorting to sentimentality, this film is filled with surprises. Everyone—from Damien’s brother to his father to the bank robbers to the Mormon missionaries down the road—have plans for the cash.

But only Damien understands there is a difference between want and need…and he’s the one who finds the best possible end to the conflicts that his windfall have created.

The Dead

The setting is Dublin, at the turn of the 20th century, on the twelfth day of Christmas. Beneath the proper, polite holiday party attended by a professor and his wife, you can feel the tension of a place that is about to explode into revolution. The Irish have had enough of their subjugation by the British, and although the hostess forbids political discussion at the dinner table, hints of the emerging rebellion are everywhere.

Gabriel Conroy, nephew of the party’s hostess, and his beautiful wife Gretta participate in the dancing, music, and pre-dinner festivities. It gradually emerges that Gabriel, with his allegiance to all things English, feels some disdain for his wife and his family, who are wholly and traditionally Irish. And he seems unable to communicate with Gretta—a shortcoming which brings about his shocking epiphany, when he suddenly understands that she never really loved him. “How poor a part I’ve played in your life,” he thinks, watching Gretta fall sleep. “It’s as if we never lived together as man and wife.”

Joyce intended this alienation to symbolize the chasm between the cold, distant British and the passionate people of Ireland. As with all of his short stories, this one, his most famous, is built on a foundation of political commentary.

The Dead was director John Huston’s last film. It stars his daughter Angelica, with his son Tony creating the screenplay. That may account for the familial intimacy of this short film. You feel you truly are a member of this family, attending a party and watching as one era slips away and something more authentic stands ready to replace it.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2011 12:30 pm

    I will check these movies out. Looks good. However I still love “it’s A Wonderful Life” but my kids will not watch it with me anymore. Sad. Mike

  2. Brett Colley permalink
    December 15, 2011 1:22 pm

    Great picks, KS. Coincidentally, “Frozen River” is sitting by my TV as I type…I’m just trying to finish grading so I can watch it. My addition to your list: “What Would Jesus Buy”, of course. Can’t beat Reverend Billy.

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