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Heart-warming . . . and not

06 December 2013

Stephen Brown sees two films aimed at different audiences


THE Christmas Candle (Cert. U) is for those who relish a Dickensian festive season. It is based on one of the Texan minister Max Lucado's popular books. Reader's Digest reckoned him the best preacher in the United States. The film also has a homiletic style.

The village of Gladbury, England, 1890. David Richmond (Hans Matheson) returns to full-time Anglican ministry after a number of years. Crucially, we later learn why there has been a gap. Like Lucado, Richmond is renowned for his sermons, although, judging by what he offers throughout, one wonders how this can be. Mainly, he hectors his congregation in this idyllic village full of characters played well by a fine repertory company, including Barbara Flynn, Lesley Manville, and John Hannah. There is also Susan Boyle, who sings only a little of the surfeit of music which we hear. While fresh from Les Misérables, Samantha Barks doesn't utter a note.

The villagers are disappointed in their new incumbent, who doesn't believe in miracles. Nor does he seem to know much about liturgy: a white altar frontal accompanies his Advent purple stole. What is particularly distressing to his flock is Richmond's disregard of their ancient belief that every 25 years an angel visits the village's candle-maker and touches a single candle. Whoever lights the Christmas Candle will see his or her request granted on Christmas Eve. When the Christmas Candle goes missing, the couple at the chandlery devise a cunning plan.

It struck me that this is often what congregations throughout the land do to this very day. Parsons can forget that they are just passing through. Parishioners see them come and go, and bide their time to hold on to their traditional ways. In the mean time, this vicar continues to dispense rather joyless scepticism. Thankfully, his kindly actions speak more generously than his words. It is very much a God-helps-them-who-help-themselves theology.

In the end, the film has it both ways. Miracles happen, but perhaps not quite as expected. A Christmas Carol it is not; nor It's A Wonderful Life. At the risk of damning this film with faint praise, The Christmas Candle will be perennial feel-good television fodder, although, even at 95 minutes, it felt a tad too long.

On general release: 13 December.


WHAT the director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) brings to her remake (Cert. 15) of Carrie, Brian De Palma's 1976 frightener, which has already spawned a sequel, musical, and television drama, reflects, dare I say, a woman's touch. Updated to 2013 and employing more recent cinematic techniques, it contrasts sharply with De Palma's all-too-male gaze. Stephen King's debut novel gets a thought-provoking treatment.

Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) is an awkward, disingenuous teenager, who freaks out in the school's changing rooms when her first period starts. Far from giving assistance, her other water-polo teammates hurl tampons and taunts. Carrie's problem is that she is a misfit, owing to her upbringing by a weirdly religious mother, Margaret - a full-throttle and yet graduated performance from Julianne Moore.

Their home is an unlikely mixture of Catholic iconography and Evangelical fervour. Margaret's brand of spirituality seems to arise from bad experiences of men. She attributes Carrie's menarche to sexual impurity. It is an odd reading of Genesis (by one so given to making biblical references) which blames the fall of Adam and Eve on their having had intercourse rather than disobeying God. The religious dimension of the film is, in fact, its weakest feature. The absence of any other sort of Christianity than that of a demented woman gives the film an unbalanced feel. The lovingkindness of a few other characters is never presented as the outcome of religious convictions, even though, rationally, that must at least sometimes be the case.

Carrie begins to challenge her mother's spiritual perspective, and, besides, she has discovered that her period has ushered in telekinetic powers that can keep Margaret at bay. Back in school, Carrie (in an echo of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott) wills that a mirror be cracked from side to side. The notion that menstruation is far from just distressing but an occasion of potent creativity isn't new. Much of this is summarised in Shuttle & Redgrove's book The Wise Wound (1978), which draws heavily on scripture, as well as several films (though not Carrie) by way of illustration. But in this film, Carrie is regarded by others as a witch or devil, especially when she starts to be destructive.

The plot, ultimately, is a revenge-movie version of Cinderella. What Peirce brings out is how terrible we can be to one another. This remake had me nearer to tears than fears: all the bullying made sure of that. And, of course, the ending cannot compete with De Palma's much imitated shock finish. In comparison, Peirce's version, alas, ends with a whimper.

On general release.

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