Boxing Day | Film reviews, news & interviews
Bleak midwinter journey in West Coast America as Bernard Rose updates Tolstoy
You don’t need to know that Bernard Rose’s Boxing Day is an adaptation of the Tolstoy story Master and Man, but it does help - somewhat. You may well know it anyway, given that it’s the third film in a loose series that Rose started just more than a decade ago with Ivansxtc, a dark satire on Hollywood’s agenting world and human burnout based on the writer’s lacerating The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The Kreutzer Sonata followed (less successfully, I thought) from Tolstoy’s story of the same name about the corrosion that jealousy brings to a relationship. All have Danny Huston in the lead role.
They mix details from everyday West Coast life that you might initially think banal, but underlying emotions run deeper than the film's stories suggest. Though frequently destructive, the feelings involved become more profound (whether that’s because of the Tolstoy resonance may be another matter). In Rose's new film an awareness of some form of final transcendence is enhanced by the fact that it’s the story of a winter journey that ends in snowy mountains, a landscape that can only make humanity and its foibles look small and insignificant.
Transcendence is just what’s needed here, because the view of humanity Rose offers is human, oh-so-human
The other hint at the presence of something greater comes in the music score, which rings out sparely but exquisitely, most of all in strains of Schubert that lend an undertone even to the suburban sludge of Denver, Colorado, let alone to crisp alpine beauty. Rose is credited with musical adaptation (along with Nigel Holland) as well as the piano performance: his Tolstoy films are quintessential indie fare, with Rose writing, directing, filming and editing, backed by a minimal location crew.
Transcendence is just what’s needed, because the view of earthly existence Rose offers is human, oh-so-human. Huston’s character has the unlikely name of Basil (and prefers to be addressed as “Sir”) though he's an all-American go-getter and driver of hard deals - more than happy in a dog-eat-dog world as long as he’s the top canine, and ready to resort to much to stay there. Nick (Matthew Jacobs, another past collaborator of Rose) is the sidekick stranger who’s driving him around on an inspection of soon-to-be repossessed houses from which profit can obviously be wrung. He’s a sad-ass Brit, washed up from a failed marriage, deprived of access to his kids, and struggling to stay on the AA straight-and-narrow into the bargain.
Nick also just can’t stop talking, which riles his “master” no end - it riles us the audience, too - by riffing on about everything, though principally nothing, under the sun. He does, however, have an essential human empathy to him that’s clearly been ripped out of Basil (if it was ever there) by his LA existence (Huston, pictured below right, and Jacobs).
Cooping them up in the same vehicle for most of the time, with only the satnav for company, is (intentionally) excruciating, as if both are competing to see who can be the more annoying. Much of the script was improvised, and this inter-relationship gradually acquires a sense that these two are old comics riffing against each other in unlikely familiarity. “If I’m a virus,” one says to the other, “you’re a blood disease.” Quite.
They're locked together in a finale of survival and death, which verges towards mania - and melodrama - before we rise above it all. Boxing Day is an elliptical film that some may find insubstantial. But, like its Schubert melody, it leaves a stronger impression behind than you'd expect from this apparent slightness - an echo of something we haven't quite been able to grasp, something beyond us high up there in the sky.
- Boxing Day opens in limited release December 21
Watch the Boxing Day official trailer
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