Boxing Day: Venice Review

Matthew Jacobs and Danny Huston
Bernard Rose's third contemporary Tolstoy adaptation is a morality trip on a road to nowhere.

Following "Ivans XTC" and "The Kreutzer Sonata," writer-director Bernard Rose and lead actor Danny Huston complete their trilogy of Tolstoy updates with this two-character drama.

VENICE – Fans of the 1992 cult horror hit Candyman probably never guessed at the time that Brit writer-director Bernard Rose would go on to become filmdom’s most dedicated Tolstoy obsessive. After being bitten by the bug with a traditional telling of Anna Karenina in 1997, the cast of which featured Danny Huston, he has since reteamed with the actor on a trilogy of no-budget modern updates of the 19th century Russian writer’s work. Following Ivans XTC and The Kreutzer Sonata comes Boxing Day, but this textureless adaptation of Master and Man suggests the well has run dry.

The 1895 novella is admired for its profound humanism and spirituality, its soulful considerations on greed and virtue, and its vivid evocation of a bitingly cold, unforgiving landscape. Those elements earned the story a place among the great works of short fiction. But all are either dulled or absent in this drawn-out overhaul, shot digitally by Rose with an ugliness that makes even the Colorado Mountains look flat.

Tolstoy’s wintry parable concerns a merchant bent on expanding his riches by closing a bargain deal over a holiday, thus beating out any potential competition. Accompanying him on a perilous journey through a snowstorm is a kindly, under-compensated servant who seeks redemption for his drunken past. They get lost three times before their horse grows too tired to continue. Realizing they won’t last the night, the merchant abandons his servant, basically deeming the poor man’s life of no value. But he wanders around in a circle, ending up back where he started and undergoing a miraculous transformation into savior.

Rose’s title refers to the British name for the day after Christmas, which derives from the tradition by which the wealthy box up a gift for their workers or those less fortunate than themselves.

The merchant character played by Huston is flailing Los Angeles real estate speculator Basil, who abandons his family during the holidays to fly to Denver. He aims to check out a string of foreclosed properties in the area that he hopes to buy from banks for below market value and then flip for profit. Short on liquid cash, he plans to bankroll the deal by unscrupulously accessing the funds of a church foundation.

Basil hires local chauffeur Nick, who as played by Matthew Jacobs (the screenwriter on Rose’s first film, Paperhouse), is a candidate for most irritating person on the planet. An Englishman and recovering alcoholic who has alienated his wife and children, Nick is the nightmare of every traveler seeking solitude and quiet but stuck with a chatty fellow passenger. His logorrhea and ineptitude are played for low-key comedy but mostly land with a thud.

Rose’s bid to give the story contemporary relevance by tapping into the mortgage crisis is robust enough. But a Thematically Important exchange between Basil and Nick – the Brit expresses concern for the folks who lost their homes while the American maintains that it’s necessary to profit from their failure in order to keep the economy from continuing its nosedive – is didactic and heavy-handed.

While Jacobs is all-too-plainly a non-professional actor, Huston has no such excuse. Their conversations often have a semi-improvised feel, but not in a good way. Both characters are drawn superficially. Nick is well-meaning but socially and physically clumsy, while Basil is smug, condescending and unfeeling, growing more irritated as the driver gets them farther off course. But the performances are so inadequate that the gradual shifts in their interaction seem forced.

When they drift out of range of the GPS system and get stuck in snow and ice on a lonely mountain road, it’s hard to be invested in either man’s fate. But also in terms of plot logic the film stops making sense. It seems inconceivable that even a man as hungry to make a killing as Basil would insist on continuing into the night on what hours ago seemed a botched quest.

Boxing Day suffers from cumulative dramatic inertia as the journey becomes more tedious and repetitive. While the film sticks almost slavishly to Tolstoy’s narrative contours in what’s largely a two-hander, there’s a stunning lack of pathos here, even with Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 working hard to add weight to the climax.

It’s no fun to beat up on a virtual one-man band like Rose, who also edited the sluggishly paced drama and composed the plonking piano score with Nigel Fellows. But even by marginal indie standards, there’s not much here to merit attention.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

Production companies: Independent, Giant Door

Cast: Danny Huston, Matthew Jacobs, Edie Dakota, Lisa Enos, Jo Farkas, Julie Marcus, David Pressler, Lyne Reese, Morgan Walsh

Director-screenwriter: Bernard Rose, based on the novella “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy

Producers: Luc Roeg, Naomi Despres

Executive producers: Michael Robinson, Andrew Orr, Norman Merry, Michael Rose, Lisa Henson

Director of photography: Bernard Rose

Music: Bernard Rose, Nigel Holland

Editor: Bernard Rose

Sales: Independent

No rating, 93 minutes