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A Wonderful Christmas Time – Review

November 17, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

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At the end of last year I was invited to a very early screening of Benny & Jolene, the feature film debut of emerging British filmmaker Jamie Adams. I didn’t know what to expect but I wound up wooed and pleasantly surprised to discover a fresh storytelling voice in Mr. Adams as I discussed in my review. However, at the time I had no clue that Benny & Jolene was intended as the first feature in an ideal trilogy of sorts revolving around the theme of “Modern Romance” with a plan for all films to be shot in five days and without a script. Adams would provide an outline of situations the actors were supposed to use as structural guidelines upon which they’d build the story relying on their improvisational skills.

Ambitious much? You bet. Crazy? Some people in the industry may think so. Despite a low budget and small scope, you still need a story that works and the only way to succeed at such an experiment is picking the right actors for the job, people you can trust who have the ability to mold the clay of your general idea into a fully fledged film. Now midway through this triple journey, it looks like Jamie Adams has proved to have good instincts with his casting choices since the second installment, A Wonderful Christmas Time, once again charms you thanks to the talented thespians he put together.

I’ll admit I was a bit perplexed at first when I learned this was going to be a Christmas-themed movie, not that I have anything against Christmas (plus my sappiness is renowned) and yet I was afraid that those were going to be tricky waters to navigate unless you’re making something on the scale of Love Actually. Gladly though my trust in Mr. Adams was rewarded with a mix of offbeat humour and warm-fuzzy feelings brought to life by a bunch of talented British up and comers. And Christmas in the end is just the setting that informs the mood of the film and helps the characters’ dynamics because of the events that the holiday time entails.

The premise is as simple as it could be. A couple of weeks before Christmas, Noel (Dylan Edwards) isn’t exactly in a cheerful place: an aspiring singer/songwriter lacking confidence and a career plan who lives with his family, freshly dumped by his girlfriend and now bound to spend the holidays alone since his wacky parents have taken off on a trip. During his relationship he’s clearly gotten distant from any friends so he awkwardly dusts off his diary from 2010 and starts calling numbers, playing it cool as if he’d just call the person the day before. After several digits turn out to be no longer in service or belonging to someone new, he finally gets a hold of an old buddy, Steve (Ian Smith), who invites him for a pint.

Before reaching the pub Noel stops by a hill that overlooks the sea (the locale is Wales) to do the cathartic screaming exercises his goofy therapist Simon (Oliver Maltman) has recommended. But he gets interrupted when Cherie (Laura Addock), a gorgeous girl who’s sitting on a bench waiting for a friend, is afraid that he might try to jump off the cliff. Despite reassuring her that he has no such intentions, Cherie remains close by and that distracts Noel, resulting in an awkward banter that reveals how they’re both recently single until Cherie’s friend Mandi (Mandeep Dhillon) finally arrives, prompting Noel to leave.

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This unexpected encounter is what obviously propels the story. After getting drunk at the pub, Noel and Steve wake up badly hung-over the following morning at Noel’s place and when Noel looks out the window, spotting Cherie and Mandi walking by, he runs out to say hello. Another quite awkward exchange leads to the girls getting invited inside for breakfast since it’s immediately clear Noel and Cherie like each other whilst Steve uses his silly antics to hit on Mandi. They all wind up spending the entire day there together, playing games, eating and drinking until they hilariously find out that Simon, Noel’s therapist, has broken in and has been sleeping in one of the bedrooms all that time. He explains how he’s been kicked out of his place for failing to pay rent and asks for asylum.

Noel and Cherie’s evident attraction isn’t just physical. They discover a chemistry based on their mutual interests for music, eighties films, Christmas and silly humour but Cherie, a disillusioned actress who’s been cheated on by her tool of an actor boyfriend after he scored a regular TV gig, wants to make sure she’s not a rebound for Noel. They agree on him going on random blind dates before he can truthfully feel like he’s ready to date again but it turns out to be just a waste of time since it’s undeniable they’re dying to kiss each other. Yet, the fears and insecurities instilled by their recent failures make them both awkwardly uneasy and even too proud to attempt the first official move.

As the days fly by and Christmas approaches, Noel’s house turns into some sort of commune where Cherie, Steve and Mandi but also Simon who hooked up with one of Noel’s failed blind dates spend a lot of time through humorous shenanigans. But this newly formed friendship’s camaraderie and the classic “will they/won’t they” dynamic are going to be tested when Cherie’s boyfriend shows up uninvited. What makes the film a cohesive story rather than a collage of sketches an improvisational piece might turn out to be is the cast’s chemistry and ability to dissimulate the unscripted quality of the piece. Dylan Edwards plays the self-loathing loser with genuine empathy, Laura Haddock proves she’s way more than just a pretty girl with her charming energy, whereas Oliver Maltman and Ian Smith steal the show as far as the comedy goes, making the most of the dry British humour.

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What’s really enjoyable, especially for a foreigner like myself, is the authentic feel of a British middle class Christmas the film conveys. Although this isn’t shot in mockumentary style like Benny & Jolene, Jamie Adams mostly keeps the camera moving with the characters and remains pretty close to them though he knows when to step back and let the audience take in the beauty of the Welsh landscape just like he did in his debut. Music is an important part of the story as well, albeit less on the forefront like it was in Benny & Jolene. Adams’ distinctive trait in this experimental cinematic trilogy seems to be a good mix of fun, music and poetic touch with nerdy, disoriented dreamers trying to find their way back to what makes them tick.

The final installment of this “Modern Romance” which has just wrapped filming, starring Alice Lowe, Dolly Wells and Tom Cullen is titled Black Mountain Poets and if the title and cast are any indication, we’re in for a worthy conclusion. Meanwhile you can start getting your holiday spirit on with A Wonderful Christmas Time that’s certainly bound to make you smile. To quote the hilarious Simon, “Christmas has come early this year.”

A Wonderful Christmas Time is released on VOD from November 24th and in UK cinemas on December 12th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor