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(Bad-ish Santa - Steve Le Marquand)

CHRISTMESS: Written and directed by Heath Davis.

AND HO BLOODY HO to you, for there is a special place in hell for people who make a certain kind of Christmas movie. Not the darkest dungeons: it is a good couple of floors above the level Henry Kissinger is in and John Howard will be joining, and a flight of stairs up from prosperity gospel ministers. But it’s low. Low enough. Low enough to be below even makers of all iterations of the Bachelor/Love Island series.

Christmas movies take a genre always teetering on the edge of excess – of sentimentality, sugariness, repeated plays-without-warning of Wham’s Last Christmas – and inject it with the idea that wanting to be good will see good done. That when confronted by a year or a decade or a lifetime of wrong behaviour, something will stir and good for goodness’ sake will emerge.

And no, that really won’t do. (Bah humbug? Yeah, what of it elf boy?) But the alternative, the gnarly “Christmas what is it good for absolutely nothing say it again” film that tries so hard to avoid sweetness it tumbles into emotional emptiness isn’t much chop either.

At this point I should say something in defence of the makers of happy/clappy Christmas films, a mitigating circumstance that doesn’t completely absolve them but does share the blame. In varying degrees, we all want to believe that wanting to be good has you halfway there, and trying to be good will finish the job. If nothing else, it absolves us of serious work because we can point to our good intentions: I said sorry didn’t I?

In writer/director Heath Davis’ Christmess, a chance to say sorry presents itself, an open family wound has a “season for forgiving” bandage ready to be applied, and a man who after decades of drugs and alcohol scuppered everything from friendships and relationships to his acting career, has long thought himself without redemption – without even the faintest justification for redemption – now has cause to hope.

After all, the people around him, people who are a step or two further down the road of recovery and restitution, who share the halfway house he moves into post-rehab and have their own scars, but lack his bitter cynicism, are telling him it is so. And all of a sudden he wants to believe. Hell, we want to believe for him. It’s Christmas, come on!

(Steve Le Marquand, Darren Gilshenan and Hannah Joy)

This is the point where Christmess makes its most important choices. No, not between a happy or unhappy ending, nor between hope and cynicism – for that is too easy, that’s where an obvious pro-or anti-Christmas film would head – but between trust and fear.

Chris, the once acclaimed actor now barely employable as a shopping centre Santa (a lugubrious, fractured, just held together Steve Le Marquand, riveting as usual) slopes his way into a household deep in an unremarkable outer suburb of low level commercial buildings, pleasantly nondescript homes and not always welcoming neighbours. The self-loathing leaches from him like sweat - and he has cause, with the unseen wreckage behind him palpable – but does that make him special?

Not for Nick, the sponsor/house supervisor (Darren Gilshenan, once again so skilled in mixing amused charm with something that could be threat or his own deep black pit), whose rules-based order is married to an almost proselytising belief in recovery, or God, or Christmas. Nor really, despite the remnants of Chris’ stardom flaring, for Joy (first-time actor Hannah Joy, of Sydney band Middle Kids, who grows in confidence and ease as the film progresses), a musician whose addictive past seemingly has left a light mark.

It is within this reconstructed family that Christmess exists. So much so that despite at least one key other character intersecting, the story really is a three-hander that ebbs and flows with the shifting levels of belief and recrimination and revelation between them.

And here, Davis isn’t afraid to be tender and sweet: trusting that the complexities of personality and individual experiences of addiction and recovery keep that sweetness from becoming trite, but also saying why not? Why wouldn’t small gestures of caring matter at least as much to the giver as the receiver? Why couldn’t or wouldn’t such characters look for, or offer tenderness? So why couldn’t this story?

Yet, there is no pretence that recovery is linear or certain, built on good intentions and promises, or that lapses, even outright falls, are definitive. The film doesn’t end on a resolution, maybe not even a progression you could argue, but options are available, alternatives are seen … no one is exactly the same.

Again, Davis trusts that even in a Christmas movie we are big enough and ugly enough to get that.


Christmess is in cinemas now.

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