Christmas is a time of tables laid with lavish servings of turkey and lashings of cranberry sauce. Of trees heaving with fairy lights and baubles, with scores of presents gathered around like Victorian urchins warming themselves by a lit brazier. Of Hollywood encouraging you to take your shot with Keira Knightley. In other words, it’s a time of rampant consumerism. Sky Max’s The Heist Before Christmas is something of a tonic, then: a Christmas movie for the underserved market in underserved Christmases.
“How’s things at home, Mikey?” asks his headmaster, after Mikey (Bamber Todd) is caught, yet again, causing trouble at his Northern Irish primary school. Things aren’t great. Single mother Patricia (Laura Donnelly) is struggling to put food on the table, while her youngest son, Sean (Joshua McLees), is clinging on to the last vestiges of childlike naivety. Their Christmas plans become inextricably tangled up with those of a bank robber (James Nesbitt), who is on the lam in a Santa suit, and Santa himself (Timothy Spall), who young Mikey encounters laid up in the woods following an apparent sleigh crash. With both the police and Christmas Day closing in, what lessons are going to be learnt by this unusual quartet?
Whether it’s the McCallisters of Home Alone, the Scrooges of, you know, all those Christmas Carol adaptations, or even It’s a Wonderful Life’s depressed banker, George Bailey, Christmas movies often depict the materially wealthy in need of spiritual nourishment. The true meaning of Christmas, they are told, isn’t in gift-giving or gorging, but in family, fraternity, and friendship. Here, The Heist Before Christmas is an interesting and worthwhile divergence. “Don’t you have a telephone?” Santa asks Mikey, telling him to call the police. “No,” Mikey replies, “you never brought me one.” It is a recurring theme throughout the 75-minute special: little brother Sean desperately hopes that this will be the year he finally gets a bike, while his mother is scrounging bones at the butcher, pretending she has a dog in order to make weak broth. When the inevitable “true meaning of Christmas” message arrives, it does so from a starting point of understanding that material wealth is easier to disavow once you’ve already experienced it.
But coded into its attempts to subvert yuletide materialism is The Heist Before Christmas’s essential problem. With its two young leads – played ably by Todd and McClees – and a script from Ronan Blaney that becomes increasingly slapstick, it feels like it ought to be aimed at younger children. And yet there are creeping adult themes that might push family viewing away: gun violence, dementia, and, most surprising of all, a scene where Patricia slaps her pre-teen son across the face. It is a moment for which the narrative requires the viewers’ mercy, even though it is never addressed or redressed. Instead, the action moves on, Shane MacGowan croons “Fairytale of New York” and Michael Bublé warbles through “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. But this vision of Christmas looks a lot more like a kitchen sink drama than we’re used to.
This is an excellent idea, but requires a confident, unmediated execution that this lacks. The Heist Before Christmas’s cinematography looks cheap – frequently over-lit in the manner that low-budget films on rushed production schedules often are – and the action choreography is equally hammy. When Nesbitt’s criminal is punched in the face or lands on his testicles, it lacks tactility. And a car chase (albeit in buggies twinkling with fairy lights) feels agonisingly slow, like the film’s insurer was standing on the side with a clipboard and a speed gun. It all contributes to the film feeling targeted at audiences younger than its themes (“This lot won’t be buying chicken and pretending it’s turkey on the big day,” whistles Nesbitt when he spies a parked Ferrari, an implication that few eight-year-olds will understand).
It’s important to applaud the desire to do something different with festive filmmaking, otherwise, we end up in an eternal loop of Dickens adaptations and romcoms involving burnt-out bigshots returning to their hick hometowns. The Heist Before Christmas is something unusual. But in its tonal imbalance, aesthetic wobbliness, and lack of ultimate commitment to its anti-capitalist core, it misses the true meaning of Christmas: that difference is something worth celebrating.