Bernard Rose is no stranger to the work of Leo Tolstoy. Although perhaps being most famous for directing nineties horror Candyman, Rose has spent the best part of his career modernising Tolstoy’s various works. After a straight-up adaptation of Anna Karenina came 2000’s Ivansxtc, a reimagining of The Life and Death of Ivan Ilyich which starred Danny Huston. Twelve years on, Rose and Huston have been reunited for this unusual little fable (a modernised version of the novella Master and Man) which muses on death, life, greed and generosity. By turns funny, challenging, frustrating and frightening, Rose’s film is an indie oddity unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
It’s Boxing Day and instead of spending time with his wife and two young children, businessman Basil (Huston) is flying into snowy Denver to hunt down some bargain property deals while everyone else is sitting around eating leftovers. Assisting him in his task is Nick (Matthew Jacobs), the well-meaning, hapless chauffeur he hires to drive him around, viewing one abandoned house after the other. From the off, it is clear that there is a distinct difference between how the two men perceive their relationship. Basil, shelling out for the luxurious service, expects quiet deference from his driver, whose name he has trouble – or perhaps deliberately doesn’t bother – remembering. He expects Nick to obey instructions, call him “Sir” and, at the very least, navigate the two of them through the wintry Coloradoan landscape in reverent silence. But – as becomes quickly apparent – Nick is not planning on sitting there quietly.
Within seconds of their first meeting, a magnetic dynamic is created between the two men – deriving equally from Rose’s clever, subtle script as from the performances of the two leads. With his throaty transatlantic accent and bold, swaggering presence, Huston is perfect as the snooty Basil, a man who – despite all his money, expertise and refined manners – has no real clue how to relate to and empathise with other human beings. Oddly enough, his seemingly jocular companion Nick – a fabulously unusual and affecting turn by newcomer Jacobs – has exactly the same problem. Little do they know it, these two men are bound together by their inability to forge meaningful connections with the people around them. Inevitably, though, as the film goes along and the cold night closes in, the men find themselves forced together – two strangers alone against the terrifying power of nature.
It’s not all bleak, though. Rose knows how to exploit the banality of his set-up for its comic potential. Both actors draw out the humour that is inherent in their roles but it it Jacobs who really shines here. At once sweet, wide-eye, irreverent and incompetent, Nick is like a big kid but – crucially, amidst the laughs – one who seriously challenges the dubious way in which Basil lives his life.
Really, Rose’s film shouldn’t quite work. There’s very little holding it together; filmed on what was evidently a shoestring budget and very light on actual story, Boxing Day certainly has its slack moments. Indeed, the slow progression of events and ultra-naturalistic dialogue have a soporific effect at times (although perhaps that is the intention). And there is something frustrating about a film that – in an age of fast food cinema – deliberately takes its time. But, by the time Rose’s film arrives at its frosty, bittersweet conclusion, it’s difficult not to feel attached to these two odd characters, despite all their shortcomings.
Boxing Day is not in any traditional sense a winter warmer, but there’s something life-affirming about its curious little story, and – against all odds – there’s an uplifting quality to the proceedings that reminds you, in the film’s dying moments, about the importance of sharing what you have with others. And by gum if that isn’t a Christmas message then I don’t know what is.