Whoever was in charge of distribution for Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël should be shamed out of the business. The reason is simple: for a film almost strictly about the Christmas spirit and human connection, it doesn’t fair well that the audience has gotten over that feeling a solid 2 months ago. Where a film like The Family Stone could get away with being released at another time, part of Joyeux Noël’s pull is that it taps into that united feeling we get at Christmas and New Year's. However, this is not to say that Carion doesn’t know how to make a good movie.
It’s the First World War, and the British, French, and Germans are all held up at a front in France, where the Brits and the French are determined to send the Germans home. Earlier, three brothers from Scotland are told that they will be going to Glasgow for military training. Palmer, the oldest and an Anglican priest (Gary Lewis), is apprehensive while his younger brothers, Jonathan and William (Steven Robertson and Robin Laing, respectively) can’t wait to go out and defend their country. The French commander, Lieutenant Audebert (a great Guillame Canet), tries to keep his soldiers morale up after a small massacre in the trenches from a German gunner. Meanwhile, the German leader, Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), attempts to find a way to get out of the fight with his honor intact. Article continues below
Then, suddenly, a German soldier named Nikolaus (he is actually a famed opera singer back home) sings Silent Night and gets backing from Scottish soldiers’ bagpipes. A truce is called in the name of the holidays and all the soldiers drink, eat and swap stories about women back home, including Nikolaus’ singing partner (Diane Kruger). For one night, they just decide to be humans, no matter what the consequences.
Like its fellow foreign language Oscar nominee Tsotsi, Joyeux Noël is strikingly familiar in its plot structure. However, where Tsotsi dealt with the gritty, crime-soaked ghettos with a harsh style and expert direction, Joyeux Noël has a timid nature to it. There’s no doubt that the film is entertaining, but dealing with war and unity needs to have some more intricacy to it. There are some terrible moments of cliché (the dead soldier’s open eyes staring right at Audebert, the brotherly dynamics between Palmer and his siblings) that hinder it from having any witty revelations about war. And there's no real moment of brutality to show the reaction of the governments of each country, not wanting peace on the fly, or even at all, maybe.
The actors buck up the moments of trite material. The great character actor Gary Lewis (he was the father in Billy Elliot and Thomas in Peter Mullan’s criminally underrated Orphans) uses a calm, even performance to see the religious and logical reactions to war. Daniel Brühl excels as Horstmayer, balancing his strict discipline and his melancholic tone with a master’s precision. The rest of the cast is excellent, with the notable exception of Kruger, who can’t make us believe her singing (it was actually done by famed French soprano Natalie Dessay) nor does she really get to the heart of woman trying to get to her soldier boyfriend (she’s no Audrey Tautou). As entertainment goes, the film knows its strides and how to make an audience happy. But for an R-rated war film, this puppy has no claws.