I do not watch Hallmark or Netflix Christmas movies on principle. If that is your thing, go ahead; I will not judge you (too much). I just cannot do it. But it is the Christmas-moviest time of the year, so when I came across one called Noëlle on Amazon Prime (2007; renamed and re-released 2018, it appears), it seemed slightly less sappy than the majority of movies featuring white couples dressed in Christmas colors, smiling in the snow. I decided to do the seasonally appropriate thing and watch it.
The synopsis was intriguing: a priest who is tasked with shutting down parishes which are not financially viable visits a church in Cape Cod where his former seminary classmate is the priest. And, by the way, it is the week before Christmas! The first thing the priest, Jonathan Keene (played by writer and director David Wall), does is run into an attractive woman at the bus stop, who seems to have changed her mind about getting on the bus. They do, however, manage to accidentally exchange gloves! Sounds like the set-up for a typical Christmas romance. But it cannot be! He is a priest! It is forbidden love (I imagine the director’s notes include exclamation marks for those plot points)!
This is kind of a strange movie. There is some terrible acting and some excellent acting (at least by comparison). There are moments that comes across forced and unnatural, and others which seem organic and right. There are some trite sentimentalities, and then there are some surprising profundities. Some jokes made me laugh and some made me groan (which is hard, I like dad jokes). It is hard to get a handle on it, which is to its overall benefit.
Despite the flat places and false notes, the cinematography (by Beecher Cotton, who worked on both Moonrise Kingdom and Manchester by the Sea) is excellent and striking and there is also a kind of homespun appeal. Other than Marjorie (played by David Wall’s real-life wife, Kerry), it appears most of these characters are played by amateur actors, including, by my count, three Wall children (there is also a cameo by Stryper’s Michael Sweet). I can believe these really are (mostly) the sort of people you might find in a small, Northeast fishing town. And David Wall does a pretty good job of convincing us of his long-coming crisis of faith (the hints of which, primarily in his visions of a little girl, add some texture to what could have been merely boilerplate).
There are a couple of scenes that stand out, partly for their acting but also for transcending both Christmas movies and Christian-produced movies (this one was apparently executive produced by the American Bible Society(?!) and picked up by Christian production company Gener8xtion Entertainment, who did One Night With the King, about the Biblical Esther, and more than one Omega Code, none of which I have seen). One of those scenes is where Father Keene tells Marjorie she cannot play Mary in the live Nativity because she is pregnant from a man who is married to someone else, which he learns from her grandmother in the course of her confession. When Keene confronts her (which is probably just on the edge of the confessional seal), she says she never wanted to be Mary anyway, and that she had considered abortion. In fact, she says, if she had had an abortion, in Keene’s world, she would have been able to be Mary. It is the sort of line which brings you up short, just when you have been lulled into thinking it is a bland, semi-entertaining Christmas movie.
Another is when Father Joyce overhears the half-drunk Father Keene confessing to Marjorie why he became a priest. As much as Sean Patrick Brennan’s (Father Joyce) acting makes me cringe and pulls me out of the scenes where he appears, he has perhaps the most theologically profound line in the whole movie. He lifts up Keene’s crucifix and he says, “Forgiveness is an awful business, isn’t it? But your man here [on the cross] beat you to it. It’s not your job.” Which would have been such a great line in the mouth of a better actor. Even so, it highlights the inborn temptation we each have to take on ourselves the job of Christ and pretend it is up to us to make things right.
Some things cannot actually be made right, including what Keene did before he became a priest. We cannot go back in time to undo them, so all that is left is forgiveness. To Father Joyce, Father Keene says, “I’ll never lay anything down.” And is not that the death-grip of the old, sinful flesh on every sinner? This, by the way, is followed in the movie by the line which made me laugh the most: as Father Keene struggles to ride away on Father Joyce’s scooter, he rides into a snowbank and falls down. One of the Irish tree-removal guys (“persecuted” Protestants, as he tells Father Keene early in the movie) says, “Well, he laid that down, didn’t he?”
Overall, Noëlle (or Mrs. Worthington’s Party) probably would not have made my Best-of-2007 list, but it is a sometimes funny, pretty good, PG-rated, slightly out of the ordinary Christmas movie (and for my sister-in-law, it even has a happy ending!).