News Column

REVIEW: "The Christmas Candle"

November 15, 2013


Nov. 15--The legend in the village of Gladbury goes something like this: An angel arrives once every 25 years at the business of the village candlemaker and blesses a single candle. It is to be given away to someone in desperation, telling them to "light it and pray," and their miracle happens.

"The Christmas Candle" could use a bit of that spirit. The message of struggling with one's faith and opening the heart to new possibilities is a solid one. But the construction of this would-be holiday classic is stiff when it needs to be alive, colorless when it needs to be shiny.

Credit goes to "The Christmas Candle," adapted from a Max Lucado book of the same name, for the story having a twist on that simple synopsis. It's the kind of tale that often has a character who doubts miracles, but in this movie, the nonbeliever is the new reverend who's just arrived in town in 1890.

That's right: The man doubting his faith in this faith-based movie is the man delivering the sermons.

Hans Matheson, a Scottish actor perhaps most familiar from playing Marius in the 1998 Liam Neeson-starring version of "Les Miserables," is often quite affecting as the Rev. David Richmond.

The man of God is trying to put the tragedy of his wife and son dying from consumption behind him, but in a manner that puts off the locals who believe in the miracle of the candle's blessing. All hope that good fortune shines on them, whether it be to cure blindness, fix a roof, find a husband or help a boy speak for the first time since his father's death years ago.

But these people's desires, coupled with the view of a pragmatist that "It is our good works that glorify God, not miracles" may prove to be an odd match for the faith of those interested in such a film and for anyone else not familiar with Lucado's belief system.

The photography is often impressive, but the film never takes full advantage of the location shoot in England and the natural beauty available.

Although the story's narrative follows a logical order, the flow is often disrupted by odd quirks.

Samantha Barks (Eponine in last year's "Les Miserables" musical version) plays a skeptic and kindred spirit to the reverend, and their chemistry is solid, but she's rarely allowed to act as much as she's forced to react to David's actions. Rather than the second lead, she feels like a supporting character.

The introduction of Susan Boyle in this film is rough. She's allowed to sing multiple times, and she has the voice of an angel. But she rarely looks comfortable with the acting and gives the movie an odd "insert star here" tacked-on feel.

Lesley Manville, as the wife of the candlemaker, is the only other cast member who brings some vibrancy to the cast from both a dramatic as well as comedic sense.

But even she struggles amid dull metaphors (a Christ-child coincidence, the candles vs. the coming of the electric age, seen as an abomination here) and the TV-movie conventions in the filmmaking.

"The Christmas Candle" is an example of a faith-based film likely to appeal only to a "preaching to the choir" niche, and some of those are likely to find faults with its methods.

'The Christmas Candle'

Cast: Hans Matheson, Samantha Barks, Lesley Manville, Sylvester McCoy, Susan Boyle, John Hannah

Theater: Cinemark Tulsa (expands Nov. 22) to multiple theaters

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Rated: PG (mild thematic elements)

Tulsa is one of five cities in the U.S. opening the holiday film "The Christmas Candle" one week ahead of its national release, thanks to the number of local connections for a picture that was shot in England and is filled with British actors.

The movie is showing at Cinemark Tulsa beginning Friday, with a number of showings already sold out to some area church groups attending in large numbers, said Candace Lee, a Tulsa-based co-screenwriter of "The Christmas Candle."

"We did have some local churches decide that it would be a good opportunity to have their members get together and enjoy our film, and we're so pleased about that," Lee said.

Based on author Max Lucado's book, the movie is produced by Tom Newman of Tulsa's Impact Productions. Newman and Impact also worked to produce "Home Run," an earlier 2013 faith-based drama shot in Oklahoma about an alcoholic baseball player who finds help through a Celebrate Recovery program. "Home Run" is now available on DVD.

Lee was also a screenwriter on "Home Run" with Newman's son, Eric Newman, who collaborated with her to adapt "The Christmas Candle."

The British cast includes Samantha Barks (Eponine in "Les Miserables"), Lesley Manville (veteran of six Mike Leigh movies) and Sylvester McCoy, a former portrayer of "Doctor Who." Filming in England, McCoy recalled to Lee that he had visited Tulsa for a science-fiction convention in the past and was named an "Honorary Citizen of Tulsa" by the mayor.

"So in reaction to our being from Tulsa, he said to us, 'You see, I'm actually one of you,' which we all found amusing," Lee said.

"The Christmas Candle" opens Friday in Tulsa, Castle Rock, Colo., San Antonio, Houston and Albuquerque. The picture -- which also features singer Susan Boyle in her film debut -- opens nationwide Nov. 22.


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