In the long, lonely lockdown of winter 2020, I became dangerously fixated on Christmas. I had been dedicated to Halloween too, mindlessly carving pumpkins for hours at a time with John Carpenter’s back catalogue playing in the background. Time was flat, particularly because I lived alone and had nobody to punctuate it with their presence. It was little wonder that my existing appreciation for traditions and thematic accompaniments was so heightened.
I knew I wouldn’t be going home for Christmas, the first one in my life I hadn’t been back in Ireland, so put my frustrated festive energy into creating a slightly tragic solo winter wonderland atmosphere.
I bought a real tree and spent a lot of money on decorations and lights and fancy booze. I ate a Ferrero Rocher and a green juice for breakfast every day, which made me feel like a chic and insane celebrity. I wrapped presents, baked cakes, carefully calligraphed cards, tweaked ribbons. Most importantly, though, I streamed every hammy, by-the-numbers, brainless Christmas film legally available to me.
I watched countless high-flying city girls relocate to hokey small towns and fall in love with the local hunky mechanic/baker/fireman. I saw hard-nosed professionals, who had lost all their joy, rediscover the spirit of Santa Claus and frivolity.
I saw body swaps and time travel and as much twee romance as you can imagine. Suffice it to say, I am a well-informed critic of this genre, and it gives me no pleasure to tell you that Father Christmas is Back is possibly the worst Christmas film on Netflix right now.
I heard of it only because my best friend, with whom I have a long history of watching execrable rubbish, had been informed there was an “unwatchable” film out starring Elizabeth Hurley and Kelsey Grammer. Unwatchable? Challenge accepted. We bravely persevered to the bitter end, which we perceived to be taking place first a good 45 minutes before it finally came, but I would be astonished if many people in their right minds will do the same.
We open in a big country house in the Yorkshire countryside, where a highly strung, very blonde woman is anxiously making preparations to have a perfect Christmas with her ragtag family full of strange and annoying people. Immediately it is apparent that the production values are not commensurate with the fairly starry casting, as the oddly aggressive lighting is disastrously unflattering and makes even the most beautiful women look as though they are getting their mugshot taken.
The family’s matriarch is Elizabeth (Caroline Quentin), a laidback Que Sera Sera type of person who looks on at the frantic squabbling between her four daughters with bemused indifference. Her full name is – wait for it– Elizabeth Christmas. I love this sort of heavy-handed nonsense, like having the whimsical love interest who changes the life of a buttoned-up man being called “Joy”.
The Christmas family are trying to have a nice Christmas together, which is a big enough ask because the four sisters are all comically diametrically different from one another in a way that suggests not only that they are different sorts of people, but also have never actually met before.
Elizabeth Hurley is Joanna, a sexy business bitch with this week’s new boyfriend in tow. Talulah Riley is Vicky, the youngest and wildest of them all, a notion expressed primarily through a pair of leather trousers and a proclivity for lounging across furniture instead of sitting on it upright.
Naomi Frederick plays Paulina, a nerdy eccentric graduate student whose thesis and entire personality is centred on “being really into The Beatles”.
They are all equally insufferable in their own ways and at no time appear to have any relationship with their siblings or their mother.
John Cleese is Uncle John Christmas, the brother of the absconded patriarch James Christmas, wheezing uncomfortably through his role as a randy farmer.
We quickly gather that Uncle Christmas and his sister-in-law are engaged in some sort of unspeakably grim sexual relationship that involves role play about cows and bulls (???). As Cleese spends the whole film carrying a gun, this invocation of livestock as erotic is even more unwelcome.
Some 27 years earlier, James Christmas (Grammer) abandoned his intolerable family for what feels like wholly sympathetic causes once you have watched them for two minutes. Vicky, backpacking across America, tracked him down and secretly invited him to England for the holidays, and so it is he – the Father Christmas of the title, ha, ha, ha – who descends on the motley crew to incite further tedious chaos.
He comes equipped with a giggling young American girlfriend, whom we are invited to dislike but who is a charming delight compared with every member of the family. Indeed, Father Christmas himself is an instantly more appealing and affable prospect than the rest of them, despite him being a floundering cad. It’s bad when your loyalties lie with a smarmy Kelsey Grammer playing a remorseless family abandoner, but that is what they have forced on me.
It cannot go unmentioned that Caroline Quentin plays Elizabeth Hurley’s mother despite being only five years older. At one point Hurley has an accidental pregnancy, which is presented as a usual and unremarkable turn of events, despite being closer to 60 than 50.
She looks amazing, but she does not look 20 years younger than she is, and that’s OK.
Grammer is the only person here who bothers to do some acting rather than the inhuman gurning that pantomime and undercooked Brit comedy films seem to share.
This valiant attempt at pretending he is in a normal film actually works to undermine itself, however, highlighting the unpalatable ridiculousness of what surrounds him.
It’s a sad fact that intentionally projecting eccentricity and silliness, unless it happens to be genuinely brilliant and funny, becomes instead pathetic, wretched to behold.
This seems to condemn many of the worst British films, which would otherwise be merely ignorable failures, to something that really rankles, embarrassing the viewer.
One can only imagine that everyone involved in this production had serious, pressing tax bills to address.