[Screen It]

(2013) (Hans Matheson, Samantha Barks) (PG)

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Drama: A progressive, late 19th century preacher fills a vacancy in an English countryside village church and must contend with the locals firmly believing that every 25 years an angel appears, blesses a Christmas candle, and that whoever lights that will be the recipient of a miracle.
It's 1890 and the people in the English countryside village of Gladbury are not only in the need of a new preacher, but also a miracle. Luckily for them, legend has it that every 25 years an angel appears and blesses a particular Christmas candle that will bestow its owner with an answered prayer. The local candle makers, Bea (LESLEY MANVILLE) and Edward Haddington (SYLVESTER McCOY) certainly believe that, as does Lady Camdon (BARBARA FLYNN). She's one of the town's few rich people and is the one who's heard of David Richmond's (HANS MATHESON) renowned sermons and recruits him to be Gladbury's new minister.

Upon his arrival, he takes up residence in a place where the caretaker, Herbert Hopewell (JAMES COSMO), and his wife, Eleanor (SUSAN BOYLE), make him feel comfortable. Due to a past personal tragedy and his belief in the power of technology, such as electricity, however, he doesn't feel comfortable allowing the village folk to continue believing in miracles. That's a sentiment shared with shopkeeper Emily Barstow (SAMANTHA BARKS) who wants to move to London some day, but must care for her ailing father, William (JOHN HANNAH), and younger cousin, Charlie (JUDE WRIGHT), who hasn't spoken a word since his parents' deaths.

Undeterred by David's lack of faith, the Haddingtons hold true in their beliefs and are visited by that angel who imbues one of their candles with the power of a miracle. Unfortunately, for them, Edward trips and scatters the candles, losing track of the blessed one. Accordingly, they decide they must distribute all of their candles to the villagers so that at least one person gets the right one, although Bea wants to keep one for themselves in hopes that it will bring their estranged adult son, Thomas (SAM CRANE), back home.

David, meanwhile, opts to create his own miracles by reading everyone's written wishes and prayers and then trying to make them come true, be that through his own work or that of a communal nature. With Christmas fast approaching, and everyone expecting their prayers to be answered, David holds steadfast in his beliefs. That is, until a number of events force him to rethink his situation.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In the world of movies, it's certainly never a bad thing to have one of your offerings associated with an annual and joyous time of the year. After all, it keeps such flicks in the minds and hearts of viewers, sometimes across generations. And the one holiday where Hollywood has focused most of its attention is Christmas. Just mention "Christmas movie" and most people will think of "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Story" and, to a lesser extent, the "Home Alone" and "Santa Clause" flicks.

The makers of "The Christmas Candle" likely want in that action. Alas, I just don't see it becoming popular among the masses. And that's despite containing a positive message, handsome production values, and decent acting (aside from one bit of "stunt casting" I'll touch upon in a moment).

The movie is based on preacher turned author Max Lucado's novel of the same name (that I have not read) and centers around the titular object that's blessed every 25 years by an angel in the late 19th century English village of Gladbury. Whoever lights said candle receives a miracle and answer to whatever their prayers might have been.

Thrown into the middle of that tradition is a new preacher (Hans Matheson) who's summoned by a local aristocrat (Barbara Flynn) to serve the locals who are currently without a pastor. While Rev. Richmond is a man of God (we first seeing him serving the hungry and poor in London), he's also a man of science and technology, at least the kind that was around in 1890. He figuratively and literally believes the Church needs to see the light and move out of Dark Ages thinking, and thus generally dismisses and ridicules the notion of miracles, a sentiment shared by a young shopkeeper (Samantha Barks of "Les Miserables" fame) who can't wait to get out of Dodge (or at least Gladbury).

None of that sits well with the local candle makers (Lesley Manville and Sylvester McCoy) whose family has lit the town for generations but also been blessed with receiving the special candle four times a century. And they do indeed get such a visit from a special effects created angel one night. But in the excitement of all of that, the special candle and the rest get jumbled together. What, oh what, are they to do?

Well, with no way to determine which candle is the one everyone wants, they decide to make all of the townsfolk believe they're in line for the quarterly miracle by giving everyone their own Christmas candle. At the same time, the naysayer preacher decides that miracles should come in the form of the residents helping each other and thus answering their prayers in a grounded rather than divine way, and thus sets off to make that happen.

As directed by John Stephenson from Candace Lee and Eric Newman's adaptation of the source novel, the film could have gone in any number of interesting directions with this scenario. For better or worse, since we see the angel's brief visit (rather than keeping that development unknown, at least for a longer period), there's never any doubt how things will play out, and thus any sort of dramatic suspense is squandered.

Thus, and beyond wondering when our protagonist (whose current m.o., natch, stems from a past tragedy that derailed part of his faith) will see the light and come back around to the fold, the only thing that might hold one's interest is whether Susan Boyle can act. Yes, I'm referring to the Scottish singer who shot to TV and then Internet fame on "Britain's Got Talent" singing "I Dreamed a Dream." Beyond the most tenuous connection to Barks (through their very loose "Les Miz" association), there's no reason for Boyle to be here. While I'm sure she's a fine person, she can't act, nor can she lip sync, thus singling out her brief singing moments, but this time in a bad way.

Most everyone else is fine to solid in their respective roles, but they're saddled with mediocre if not on the nose dialogue, flat pacing and all too obvious signs of where everything is headed and how it will play out. That said, I wasn't expecting the nearly literal deus ex machina element that arrives late in the film and feels completely out of place. It's not that a miracle wouldn't or shouldn't appear in a film like this.

It's that one nearing sci-fi status taking place in 1890 not only pretty much throws out the moderately interesting "are miracles real or not" debate going on before that, but stands out like an awkwardly placed sore thumb. Which is a shame, because up until then, the pic had been pretty much avoiding the "preaching to the choir" approach that so many faith-based films fall prey to. As such, it's unlikely "The Christmas Candle" will become a holiday classic, at least outside of those who seek out such films. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2013 / Posted November 22, 2013

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