Appearances, opines the mysterious “they” who seems to be everywhere and opinionated about it all, can be deceiving.
Sometimes a little, or in the case of Christmas on Mistletoe Farm, the tinsel-draped train wreck that ran over Santa and his elves and likely took a few unfortunate Christmas trees with it, a LOT with the film’s trailer promising one of those quirkily cosy tales of redemption at Christmastime in an idiosyncratically English village setting and delivering a fever dream likely brought on by far too much addled eggnog.
On paper, the movie should be a classic festive delight in the instant making.
It duly presents us at the start of proceedings with a harried single dad, Matt Cunningham (Scott Garnham) who is driving to hold down a demanding corporate job in, well, something sales-y while raising five kids Rosie (Delilah O’Riordan), Charlie (Evan Scott), Lily (Madison Davis), Violet (Faith Delaney) and Buster (Dexter Sol Ansell) – in the light of his wife’s tragic passing roughly a year earlier.
Matt is both handling and not handling being a single dad – his blithe ineptitude is played for laughs but little of it truly hits the mark despite the best efforts of writer/director Debbie Isitt – and his kids are running amok a little bit though, thank the casting stars, they are not presented as unruly nightmares because that wouldn’t have gotten real old, real quick.
It’s the kids in fact that are the most delightful part of Christmas on Mistletoe Farm.
They are rambunctious and cheeky but not in a nasty, grating kind of way, and it’s their irrepressible enthusiasm for life on the farm that Matt suddenly inherits from his dad (which, in keeping with the movie as a whole, is not even remotely as straightforward as it seems), and which sends them temporarily from their busy life in London, that makes some of the more outlandishly over-the-top scenes in the film feel enjoyable.
Or, it should be said, enjoyable enough.
For Christmas on Mistletoe Farm is one of those films that starts out reasonably straightforward in its narrative direction before throwing a spanner or two in the works and completely losing the plot, quite near literally, by the end.
Initially what we get is Matt and the kids finding out that life on the farm, and in the nearby village populated by a requisite cast of well-meaning but intensely odd people such as Miss Womble (Celia Imrie who likely regrets taking the call from her agent on this project), is nothing like they expected but everything they needed.
So far, so expected.
Now, the key thing to note here is that some imaginative storytelling gymnastics are never a bad thing in any movie, especially one that inhabits a genre where “new” and “original” are not words that crop up often; in fact, if you get even a whiff of someone doing something even slightly festively left of centre, you should hug them , thank them and encourage them to let their nonconformist narrative freak flag fly!
So when Christmas on Mistletoe Farm goes full ballistic bananas, with gloriously hammed-up performances that are kind of fun in isolation but add up to a storytelling sugar high that seems to have completely lost its mind, it all begins to feel a bit too much.
It’s hard not to love the first wacky character we meet, Beano (Scott Paige), the resident farmhand who proves a warm and lovable hit with the kids even if his frantic garrulousness and enthusiasm on steroids grates Matt the wrong way.
He’s adorable in lots of ways and is the most well-rounded of the villagers who are mostly one-note characters shoehorned into a story that tries to cover all kinds of festively redemptive bases – man finds love at Christmas (hurrah!), villagers see off greedy developers who apparently want to build a mall in the middle of English countryside nowhere (hmm, let’s see how the business case holds up, shall we?) and the kids finds new life after lots of grief – and ends up not really sticking the landing on any of them.
There’s so much promise at the start of Christmas on Mistletoe Farm which a reasonably well-worn premise and tries to go the quirky route in bringing it to festively animated life; you want the film to succeed because, by themselves, many of the characters are lots of fun and quite sweetly loopy.
But when they all go full goofball jacket, and the plot ramps up to keep pace with their ballistically manic shenanigans, it’s hard to stay involved, either emotionally or in any other way frankly.
You’re happy, I guess, that Matt finds love with local vet Miss Ashley (kathryn Drysdale) but it feels so shoved into the plot at the last planning meeting that they go from antagonism to lovely-dovey with none of the emotional pitstops in-between to make you care about them.
The kids fare a little better since they are so winningly likable in their earnest, warmhearted need for a new beginning that you can’t help but be glad that Beano adores them and bonds with them or that their teacher Miss Nerris (Sydney Isitt-Ager) is so protectively caring about them – thought she seems happy for them to give up literacy and numeracy in favour of goat husbandry; dubious educational approach, maybe? – and they at last emerge from the whole narrative shambles with some sort of emotional authenticity intact.
Not so dad Matt, who is screaming at the thoroughly decent and nice villagers (though when they wage war on the developers, there are a few WTF happened to them moments) one minute before becoming their bestest bud and pillar of the community the next.
It’s the sort of narrative whiplash which marks Christmas on Mistletoe Farm time and time again and which, while fun if you like manic over the top goings-on that never stop and start piling up like mass car accident on a freeway, end up becoming a messy tangle of a thousand competing elements, many of them promising in their own twee, comforting right but which lose any dramatic or comedic impact when they are thrown in the story blender that races through the second half of the film.
Simply put, Christmas on Mistletoe Farm promises to be a quirky, fun, somewhat farcical trip down redemptive candy cane lane, with just enough original touches to not feel like a tired retread, but ends up a pig’s breakfast (apropos given the setting) that is sort of sweetly enjoyable but also not, a cacophony of a million different parts that seem like they’ll be a great big warm festive hug but ends up feeling a damn squib of an embrace that leaves you wondering what the hell just happened to you.