Christmas movies generally arrive with strings attached. Many are great fun if one suspends one’s disbelief or ignores gaping plotholes or rides a wave of saccharine schmaltz. British director Michael Winterbottom’s effort, however, manages to enchant, enthral and instil the magic of Christmas while still retaining prescient critical commentary and artistic integrity.

The set-up is thus: plastic surgeon Stephen Arnold (Tucci) is performing surgery on every day from December 1st through to the 24th. His disillusioned spouse, Margaret (Fisher), is staying at home during this period preparing for Christmas. The film focuses on both Margaret’s lonely vigil and Stephen’s busy schedule, and of course on the brief occasions when they are together at the end of the day, Stephen exhausted and Margaret clearly up for it. Margaret’s attempts to amuse herself during the days provide both amusement and insight, particularly when she convinces herself that the clerk at the store from which she is buying the Christmas decorations is coming onto her, and begins to turn up wearing fewer and fewer clothes, until the cold weather and the assistant’s lukewarm response put paid to her plans. Stephen’s clients are singularly obnoxious, and we are made to feel some sympathy for him as the seventh nose job he has performed in a week is met ungratefully by its trophy wife recipient.

Tucci’s performance here is pitch perfect, particularly with the scalpel in his hand, his glazed expression conveying brilliantly that he’d rather be wrapping presents with his wife, but has been coerced into this by maybe greed, maybe circumstance. Margaret never comes to complain about Stephen’s decision, even when a few of their passionate nights are brought to an undesirable conclusion by Stephen’s tiredness. Winterbottom’s handling of these scenes is expectedly assured, often focusing in on Margaret’s achievements for the day while the couple are intertwined. The soundtrack is spot on too, featuring a terrific mix of traditional Christmas frippery for Margaret as she plays patience or traipses a supermarket in search of turkey, and a series of downbeat, xylophone-based pieces for Stephen, disjointed and yet rhythmic, composed by Terry Riley, which complement the lingering shots and utterly Christmasless mood wonderfully.

The Christmas Day finale is, I assure you, superb, and its detailing here would only spoil the sense of both magic and poignancy created. Forget Elf 2 or Christmas at Tiffany’s this festive season; Advent is the film that will suit all of your seasonal feel-good requirements without drowning you in blandness or commercialism.

By Hugh Oxslade

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