Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Movie Review: Joyeux Noel (2005)

Written and Directed By: Christian Carion
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Benno Furmann and Gary Lewis

I purchased this film on a whim last year and only just got around to watching it. Originally, I planned to watch it during its limited theatrical release but it passed me by.

For those of you who know me, you are aware that I'm an absolute sap for Christmas and the winter holidays, in general. I literally melt into a puddle of sentimental goop around Christmas. I figured this film, combined with the fact that it's based on an actual historical event, seemed tailor-made for my tastes.

The film chronicles the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day ceasefire between the Germans, French and Scottish on the Western Front during the early days of the First World War in 1914, when soldiers still thought they would be home by the following year at the latest. It came to be known as The Christmas Truce and is still celebrated today as an example of human decency and kindness, in the face of violence and death. These three groups of men, from three different countries and speaking three different languages, overcame all barriers and spent the holidays together in their trenches, sharing meals and stories about their homes and families. They become fast friends, causing a scandal within their higher ranks who were far away from the fighting. When word gets out that the three nations have stopped shooting at one another, against orders, all the men involved are punished by their respective nations.

Carion and his casting directors made some wonderful choices in the acting department. There's nothing better, when watching a film, than coming across an actor you've never seen before and are pleasantly surprised by how great they are. I'd never seen Guillaume Canet in anything before but this wonderful French actor is pretty much the centrepiece of the film as French commander, Audebert (pictured above). He's a young man in charge of a vast troop and his kindness towards his men, his nervousness in agreeing to the truce and his blossoming friendship with the timid and awkward Ponchel (Dany Boon) holds the film together. You almost wish the cast wasn't such a huge ensemble because his character deserves his own film.

The rest of the cast is just as stellar. As the lone female in the film, Diane Kruger (who I always find to be a much stronger actress when speaking in her native German), plays Dutch opera singer, Anna Sorensen, who is brought to the troops on Christmas Eve to sing to them with her boyfriend, German soprano Nikolaus Sprink (played by Benno Furmann, also great in his role). Rounding out the cast is Gary Lewis as Scottish piper, Palmer (most will recognize him as the father from Billy Elliot), who is such an excellent actor and is really fantastic in the scene where he plays the bagpipes to accompany the German soprano, Sprink. Without any dialogue, he conveys all the emotions of a man exhausted with war and seeking a moment of peace and relief. Daniel Bruhl (another great actor that most will recognize from Inglourious Basterds but was also excellent in the German films Love in Thoughts, Goodbye Lenin! and The Edukators) plays German commander, Horstmayer, a Jewish man who admits Christmas means next to nothing to him but, after some initial reluctance, readily embraces the truce.

This film is by no means perfect. The pacing is a little off. For a war film with a focus on peace, love and understanding between three nations at war, its slow to start. I suspect it was a struggle for the writers and director to balance such a large cast and the struggle to find a main voice. Most films benefit from the focus on one or two main protagonists, however, that would have been impossible to do in a film/historical event that has so many different sides. Initially, the main character appears to be Anna, which is odd considering the film is based on an actual historical truce. The fact that it doesn't begin with an emphasis on that point gets the film off on the wrong foot. However, after the "Silent Night" scene that bonds all three troops, the film evens out and hits its stride, focusing on the men and their shared excitement of being able to put down there guns and be young men again, if only for a little while. I still wish more emphasis had been placed on the men and less time spent with the opera singers. However, the powerful message that war is senseless and that even our enemies are just like us, is still relevant to this day. Moments like the real Christmas Truce deserve to be captured on film, if only to remind us of that fact.


On a final note, here's the scene where German soprano, Sprink, sings "Silent Night" when he is joined by Scottish bagpiper, Palmer.