A Castle for Christmas is the latest Netflix attempt to ape the Hallmark holiday game, but you’d be better off with a lump of coal.
Director Mary Lambert is responsible for some of the most iconic and cutting-edge music videos of the ‘80s, including Madonna’s “Material Girl” and “Like a Prayer,” and Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.” She also helmed one of the most financially successful horror films ever directed by a woman, 1989’s Pet Sematary. That her filmmaking career never flourished despite these notable triumphs is more an indictment of Hollywood’s appalling gender politics than Lambert’s filmmaking talents, which have always been as proficient as those of her male counterparts, more so than most. It’s a real bummer, then, that those gifts are nowhere to be found in A Castle for Christmas, Netflix’s latest foray into Hallmark holiday shenanigans. As non-descript and flat-looking as every other such project Netflix has produced in the past few years, Christmas comes across as nothing more than a paying gig for Lambert, although the fact that a 70-year-old female director is still able to find work in Hollywood today is cause for small celebration, no matter how dire the circumstances. That said, it’s obvious that not in a million years could a film like this be anyone’s passion project. In fact, passion is what is sorely missing from this rote and toothless romance, which casts a couple of recognizable faces, plants them in an exotic location around the holiday season, slaps some Belle and Sebastian on the soundtrack, and mistakenly thinks that this is sufficient to fill a 95-minute running time.
Brooke Shields stars as Sophie Brown, a famous romance novelist who is under fire from her adoring fans after killing off the male lead of her best-selling series. An appearance on The Drew Barrymore Show — which, by the way, is an honest-to-goodness talk show that exists in 2021; who knew? — fans the flames when Barrymore accuses Sophie of letting her recent divorce color her view of romance, which seems in poor taste even for a talk show host (although Barrymore is nothing if not known for her journalistic integrity). Desperate to remove herself from the public eye, Sophie ventures to the small village of Dunbar, Scotland, population 155. Sophie’s father grew up in the shadow of a nearby castle, the stupidly named Dun Dunbar, where his father was a groundskeeper. As Sophie discovers upon her arrival, Dun Dunbar is indeed still around but on its last legs, with its current owner, Myles (Cary Elwes), desperately trying to make ends meet by providing paid tours and renting it out as a wedding venue. Sophie and Myles have a meet-cute where Myles’ dog, Hamish, jumps up on Sophie and pushes her into Myles’ arms, although the two actors are lit so garishly that he resembles a 70-year-old spinster and she the survivor of a Botox explosion. Plot dictates that these two can’t get together immediately, so screenwriters Kim Beyer-Johnson and Ally Carter come up with an altogether ingenious bit in which Sophie disobeys Myles’ orders not to investigate the upper floors of the house because those are his personal living quarters, resulting in Myles’ rightfully calling her out for being nosey and self-centered — although, admittedly, to a degree that would only be appropriate if Sophie also shot his dog in the process. Sophie naturally falls in love with Dun Dunbar after finding an old engraving from her father and offers to buy it, which Myles agrees to only if she will agree to stay in the castle for three months prior to purchase in order to understand how difficult such an undertaking would be; after all, it has 786 rooms. Myles’ plan is to make Sophie’s life a living hell so that she will ultimately decide not to buy it, using her non-refundable deposit to keep the place afloat for another six months. The thing is, the film is so lazy that aside from putting her in a shitty room that has some leaks, Myles does nothing to make her life the least bit inconvenient. In fact, Sophie’s friends — a close-knit knitting group from the local pub — show up with some shitty doilies and ugly vases, and apparently everything is fixed. Riveting stuff.
A Castle for Christmas is one of those films that speeds from plot point to plot point, yet still manages to feel 14 hours long, as nothing of interest ever happens. Everyone involved is simply going through the motions, each obvious story turn delivered with a half-hearted shrug. The third-act conflict is especially nonsensical and clearly exists solely for the forced happy ending at the Dun Dunbar Christmas Eve gathering. (Speaking of which, it has to be noted that hearing these actors and actresses recite the words “Dun Dunbar” for 90 minutes is simultaneously one of the funniest and most obnoxious things to happen in a film in a while.) Films like this live and die on the chemistry of their leads, and Shields is as wooden as ever, while Elwes continues his long-standing tradition of radiating amiability while never once suggesting true acting chops. And in a sign of the times, as Netflix is nothing if not a beacon of inclusivity, Sophie’s knitting group includes both a gay man and a woman of color. But as such token representation goes, the gay character is given only one line of dialogue, which feels fairly impolitic, although the greater sin occurs when Sophie gifts all of her friends outfits from Sak’s Fifth Avenue and provides him with the ugliest Cosby sweater seen in many a moon. The film’s end credits show Sophie’s triumphant return to The Drew Barrymore Show, but the footage has been cut together with bloopers from the filming of that very scene, which is as bizarre a choice as any here, and wholly indicative of the who cares attitude that permeates the entire enterprise, a trifle that seemingly exists to be half-watched while wrapping gifts. But even the dregs of the Hallmark Channel understand the importance of commitment above all else, a lesson that Netflix needs to learn ASAP if they want to compete in the crowded holiday film game. Instead of a castle for Christmas, perhaps they can gift audiences with something watchable next time out.
You can currently stream Mary Lambert’s A Castle for Christmas on Netflix.