A Very British Christmas (2019)

If you’ve come across A Very British Christmas expecting something along the lines of Love, Actually or Bridget Jones, then let me just stop you now because this isn’t it. There are no Christmas markets, chic London flats, or Colin Firths. This is more Emmerdale, except with sharper production values and duller storylines. And if you don’t know what Emmerdale is (it’s a long-running British soap based in rural Yorkshire), then maybe you’re American and the target audience for this befuddling film. At least that’s who I think the movie is aimed at. You don’t have to dig too deep to realize there’s nothing particularly British about it. Besides some picturesque shots of an English village, and a handful of northern accents, it’s basically a Hallmark movie.

And like a Hallmark movie, there’s not a lot in terms of story or character. Our American protagonist, Jessica (Rachel Shenton), finds herself stranded in Pine Falls after missing her train stop. She manages to bump into the one other American (Jennifer Bryer) in town, who hooks her up with some last minute accommodations. Jessica spends the night in a cottage owned by Andy (Mark Killeen), and it’s an arrangement that couldn’t have come at a better time for him. He’s doing his best to preserve his holiday rental business but feels squeezed by sluggish demand and those who want to buy his land for access rights to a potash mine. He’s also still dealing with the grief of losing his wife while trying to raise their young daughter, Katie (Isla Cook). Jessica, utterly charmed by the place, decides to help a guy out and suggests a fresh marketing campaign to get more visitors like her over there.

The plot works even if it’s not all that exciting. Some originality might be nice, but I’ve been watching Hallmark movies for two solid months so I can’t complain. Jessica’s story could use some tweaking though. She’s a world class opera singer en route to Vienna when her plane is diverted. For some reason, she doesn’t stay at the airport awaiting the next flight but decides to hop a train for some seriously out of the way lodging. Surely she’d just fly to somewhere, anywhere in Austria so she’d make it to her performance, but my logic and movie logic are two different things.

The more confusing part is why she decides to stay in Pine Falls despite the urging of her agent. Apparently it’s no big thing to bail on performance commitments when you’re one of the country’s biggest opera stars. She gets multiple chances to leave but doesn’t take them because of her sudden attachment to this idyllic town and her gracious hosts. While it’s easy to see her affection for little Katie and Andy’s mom (Michele Dotrice), her attraction to Andy remains a mystery. Even when the two are confessing their feelings for one another I have trouble believing it. I’ll grant that some chemistry exists, but it’s not romantic and instead the genial cottage owner/tenant kind.

The film is also curiously devoid of people. Aside from those with speaking lines, no one seems to live in Pine Falls. Jessica’s American friend promises her she’ll meet plenty of Dickensian characters, but crotchety old Ben (Steve Evets) and his friend with the fake beard are the only ones with any color in this ghost town. At least the empty streets allow for some footage of Jessica strolling past very British village shops, which will either look lovely to you or like she’s shooting a music video. There’s some morning mist and sheep for good measure. These charming, bucolic images are about the only thing the movie has going for it though.

Released: 2019
Dir: Steven Nesbit
Writer: Steven Nesbit, Karl Hall
Cast: Rachel Shenton, Mark Killeen, Isla Cook, Michele Dotrice, Jennifer Bryer, Steve Evets
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Showtime
Reviewed: 2020

Marley’s Ghosts S02 (2016)

Be careful what you wish for, which in this case is a six-episode order for round two of Marley’s Ghosts. Strictly speaking, I didn’t wish for this, but after an affecting third and final episode of the first series, I wondered if an extended season might improve its storytelling. No, seems to be the answer. While the characters attempt some soul searching, in a literal sense on occasion, they return as vapid as ever, joined by even more exasperating personalities.

Magistrate Marley (Sarah Alexander) has moved on since the deaths of her husband, lover, and vicar, by which I mean she’s moved into a new house in a new neighborhood. Adam (John Hannah), Michael (Nicholas Burns), and Vicar (Jo Joyner) meanwhile remain her constant companions and, by the looks of it, her only friends. She’s developed a begrudging tolerance for her supernatural housemates, in part because they won’t leave her alone and in part because she seems to have gotten used to the idea of sleeping with three ghosts. But now Marley wants to see what exciting things await her as a single woman.

She doesn’t have grand ambitions for widowed life, but she does want to get in good with the neighborhood association and perhaps join a women’s running group. Her actions don’t endear her to anyone though. Guess running through the streets in your underwear and yelling at imaginary friends aren’t ways to win over strangers. Besides, Marley isn’t all that likable. She can be selfish and unfeeling, and her lack of empathy is a point of contention in the series. After laughing off the misfortunes of a blind man (David Brain) and an elderly woman on a mobility scooter, she realizes maybe she does have some emotional hang-ups.

Marley’s not the only one with issues though. Far from enjoying a carefree afterlife, the ghosts are experiencing their own crises. Michael is distraught to learn that his ex-wife doesn’t and maybe never did care for him, Adam finds fulfillment with another (ghost) woman (Sarah Hadland) and wonders if she could possibly be his soulmate, and ever-loopy Vicar is momentarily introspective enough to question her relationship with God.

The characters’ acceptance of their own failings comes slowly and arguably too late, but at least there’s growth. The second series needed something to go on besides the novelty of human-ghost cohabitation, and Marley and friends show themselves to be relatable by exposing their less desirable traits. I admit they grew on me after awhile, but I might be confusing this feeling with merely tolerating their presence. Still, there’s strange beauty in this group of misfits; they turn out to be a supportive if unconventional family unit when it really matters, like in the final episode when Marley receives some surprising news.

The series only has a few standout moments, however, making it an easy one to forget. Marley’s relationship with her rebellious niece, Mia (Ella-Rae Smith), is as touching as it is messy. On several occasions, Marley takes charge of Mia. She tries to restrain the latter’s adolescent impulses while also giving her room to learn from her mistakes. Alexander is most effective in these tight spots, when there’s something on the line besides her own insecurities.

My biggest problem with the series was Vicar, who’s written without a clear direction in mind. Joyner inhabits the role brilliantly, swinging from dim to thoughtful in a beat, but the character is a lazy sketch. While she has her moments of clarity, her main purpose seems to be offsetting Adam and Michael’s sizable male egos and allowing jabs about shoddy faith formation. Unlike the other characters though, there isn’t a specific experience or memory that shapes her or the audience’s understanding of her. You can always count on Vicar to reference Job when she’s confident or make up a story from Matthew when she’s not, but that’s about all there is to her. I’m not going to suggest another season to see if her character or the story could be fleshed out, and two series seems to be all we’re getting, which is fine and fitting.

Released: 2016
Dir: Jonathan Gershfield
Writer: Daniel Peacock
Cast: Sarah Alexander, John Hannah, Jo Joyner, Nicholas Burns, Elizabeth Berrington, Ella-Rae Smith, Juliet Cowan, David Brain, Sarah Hadland, Jim Howick
Time: 26 min x 6
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Gold
Reviewed: 2019

Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70 (2018)

There is something familiar about this BBC documentary marking the seventieth birthday of Prince Charles, something I couldn’t place until I was a good half an hour into it. It wasn’t that I had seen this program or any other celebration of the Prince of Wales’s life before but that this has the makings of a nature documentary. There’s Charles, heir to the British throne – grand, majestic, at one with his surroundings – and there we are, prying from afar, watching as he ambles through his gardens and pokes at things with a stick. What strangeness.

My American bewilderment with the royal family renews itself every time I see one of these documentaries, which is often. The more I think about this institution, the more I think a nature film is an apt comparison. Train the eye on the subject, pick apart its every move, marvel at the beauty and savageness on display. Also enlist a sober narrator, which in this case is stage actor and star of tomorrow Paapa Essiedu, a distinguished substitute for David Attenborough in my opinion.

Essiedu calms and guides you through the celebration. The documentary has hypnotic quality that is gentle on subject and audience alike. It’s also unflinching in its positive portrayal of Prince Charles, a move that’s pretty on brand for a family that’s just recovered from its 1990s existential crisis. In a clearly defined thesis, the film highlights three areas of the prince’s life. All are related to his advocacy work, in case you need a reminder that the Windsors do in fact contribute a tangible good. We see the prince’s longstanding environmental activism, his commitment to heritage preservation, and his engagement with young people.

The filmmakers make a good case, highlighting Prince Charles’s tireless work ethic. Not only does he have more duties as his mother scales back her overseas travel, he also keeps up a regimented daily schedule, which is more than I can say for myself. Praise comes from many quarters, including beneficiaries of the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity he established in 1976. He is very much a man of the people in these moments. Despite looking like a founding father of GQ’s best dressed list, he converses easily with young people sharing stories about overcoming poverty and lack of self-esteem. He has a similar touch with those he meets abroad. On a trip to Dominica to aid storm victims, he holds hands, listens carefully, and pledges assistance. He may be reserved, but he does comes across as sincere. Another instance of relatable, approachable Charles occurs during a trip to the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Like your grandparent on a cruise stop, he scrambles to find the right change while buying souvenirs for his grandkids at a crafts market. In the end, he has a man to get the money, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?

The most effective campaigners for the Prince are his family, and the documentary features interviews from both of his sons and his wife. Unfortunately for me, there’s no Meghan, but as this seems to have been filmed post-wedding, there are some behind-the-scenes glances of the married couple at an engagement. Harry and Camilla also give a few recollections of the day, so I’m sated. The Charles they share with the world is one who is funny and kind. His sons are especially proud of their father’s pioneering environmental advocacy, which rather impressed me. Some of these efforts are relatable, like his fanatical need to conserve energy and pick up litter, but then he talks about getting a more efficient engine fitted into his Aston Martin and we are reminded that he’s a prince. He’s a prince who’s channeled his privilege and experience into something actually productive though, according to this documentary, so we’ll leave it as it is, a celebration of the man’s seventieth birthday.

Released: 2018
Dir: John Bridcut
Writer: John Bridcut
Cast: Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Paapa Essiedu
Time: 60 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2019