So This Is Christmas: Don’t go expecting a jolt of yuletide joy from this fine Irish documentary

Irish film-maker Ken Wardrop focuses on five less-than-jolly subjects in the run-up to the festive season

So This Is Christmas
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Director: Ken Wardrop
Cert: 12A
Starring: N/A
Running Time: 1 hr 26 mins

“I always think the Christmas is a sad time.” That chestnut really could be the tagline for the latest documentary from the indestructible Irish humanist Ken Wardrop. No facetiousness is intended. Going among five subjects in the run-up to the festive season, the director of the great His & Hers and the underappreciated Making the Grade draws out stories that are both particular and all too universal.

Loretta talks about unwarranted shame at not having enough money to send her kids to swimming. Mary, a fortysomething woman, explains the special pressures the season brings for someone who has had an eating disorder. Jason prepares his children for their first Christmas without his recently deceased wife. Annette, a wryly fatalistic older lady, now alone, looks back on bad old days. “The most traumatic day of my life was my first day in school,” she says. Shane, another person alone, puts out a sign reading “Santa stop here”. He tells his dog: “Santa might stop and give you something nice ... A doggie biscuit ... or a girlfriend.” The stubbornly Irish phrase “all set for the Christmas?” takes on the quality of a taunt in this environment. As ever Wardrop positions the camera in front of his subjects and encourages them to speak straight to the viewer in the cinema. Their rural homes flesh out their identities in economic fashion. The director has always been comfortable in a kitchen.

For all the richness of the tales told, So This Is Christmas remains an enormously peculiar project. It opens with pretty snowy countryside, jingly music in the style of that Guinness commercial and a message that reads: “Somewhere in Ireland at the most wonderful time of the year with everyone being of good cheer.” Is that supposed to be ironic? If so, the irony is buried deep beneath the snowdrift. We do meet some amateur Santa Clauses. A priest compares Jesus to the bearded man with the sack. We hear a children’s choir. But for the most part this is a film about people struggling with the greatest challenges an ordinary life can bring. The packaging suggests some effort to rub against the traditional seasonal entertainment. It is a long way from that. There is no reason for it to try to be that.

Which is a long-winded way of saying the latest Wardrop is (as always) worth seeing, but don’t go expecting a jolt of yuletide joy.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist