A review of “Joyeux Noel” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for wartime violence and images. In English, French and German with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

 

 

Sentimental yet saccharine, this affecting WWI drama is a cornucopia of tension and faux emotion. Based on actual events from the first year of the Great War, “Noel” weaves a manipulative spell around the concept of universal goodwill.

With little fanfare and minimal character development a trio of nations call their loyal boys to the front. Guileless brothers William and Jonathan (Robin Laing and Steven Robertson) from a tiny Irish parish, famed German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) from the Berlin Opera and career militarist Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet) who hails from the wine-soaked streets of Paris.

All too soon our leads and their regiments find themselves in the glacial trenches of a snowy, be-trenched front; aching for the comforts of home and a desperate respite from the horrors of war.

Sprink’s headstrong lover, Danish soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), is having none of it. The holidays are on the horizon and she wants her man by her side. She finagles a visit to the German command post on the semi-pretense of offering a Christmas Eve recital to battle’s disillusioned warriors.

The situation develops into melodrama both genially old-fashioned and highly implausible, but for the fact that it actually happened. As Sprinks’ crystal tenor melodically fuses with the Scottish bagpipes lilting from a neighboring trench the men feel the harmonic tug of heartstrings and a desire for human contact unrelated to the atrocities of war.

Commanders of the respective battalions agree to a temporary cease fire in honor of the holiday, holding an impromptu summit meeting on the soulless frozen tundra. A potpourri of foreign tongues and diverse cultures unite in a melting pot of benevolence and grace. The far reaching consequences of that one fateful night are replete with joys and sorrows.

Daniel Brühl (“Good Bye Lenin!”) is the jewel in the crown of this enterprising ensemble, his sensitive German commander Lt. Horstmayer torn between unyielding military duty and the responsibility to fuel his divine spark.

Only the hardest of hearts could resist the inherent message of this Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Yes it’s corny and clumsily crafted. Didactic where lyrical would better suffice. But the notion of setting aside immeasurable differences when at all possible lingers on.