"The Christmas Candle," a film from Christian author Max Lucado and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, has decent acting and solid production values; but it's too busy and overstated to become a holiday favorite.
Set in 1890s England, the story concerns a village where a "Christmas miracle" occurs every 25 years: An angel blesses one candle, and whoever lights it receives a guaranteed answer to prayer.
Yeah, I know - sounds more like magic than religion; and this bothers the town's new pastor, David Richmond - a city man whose preference for reason and practical goodness sets him at odds with the townsfolk.
Edward?Haddington (Sylvester McCoy) and Bea Haddington (Lesley Manville) are villagers in the town of Gladbury, which is enchanted by a magic candle in “The Christmas Candle.”
That conflict is clumsily embodied in Richmond's plan to bring electric lights to the church building - a determination resulting in a scene not merely overstated but downright annoying. At this point, the story lurches uncomfortably onto the side of the residents and their magical traditions.
Until then, the film was doing pretty well. It never demonizes Richmond; his campaign to answer the flock's many "miracle prayers" in a sensible and down-to-earth way sets up an agreeable tension between these two approaches to faith.
To their credit, Lucado and company emphasize the benefits of Richmond's diligent kindness; but their insistence on contrived, over-the-top answers - such as the church-lighting scene - makes mincemeat of Richmond's biblical assertion that the birth of Jesus was "miracle enough."
I suppose the final miracle here was inevitable, but I honestly think the film would be better without it.
After all, its great strength is a nifty ending that shows providence working in a much more persuasive manner than exploding light bulbs and sparkly visitations from angelic beings.
In any case, I found it off-putting to wrestle with these issues in a feel-good Christmas film; between the ideological tension, the overstated scenes and about a dozen plot strands, the film feels too cluttered.
Hans Matheson is solid as Richmond, though overmatched by some of the more emotional moments. The rest of the cast is first-rate, highlighted by Samantha Barks as the town skeptic (Barks burned up the screen as Eponine in last year's "Les Mis").
Lesley Manville, Sylvester McCoy and Barbara Flynn bring a world of conviction to the roles of older town residents, and John Hannah - wise-cracking sidekick in the recent "Mummy" series - is spectacular in a few scenes as Barks' father.
TV singing sensation Susan Boyle has a small role too; her voice sounds terrific, but I don't think a huge film career is in the cards for her.
The movie looks great: excellent costumes, sets, props and locales (it was filmed partly on the Isle of Man) - all nicely photographed by Mike Brewster, who worked on most of the Harry Potter films.
Lucado wrote the book on which this film is based, and Santorum's company co-produced; it's a pleasant enough movie, but I'm not sure big-screen success is in the cards for them, either.
2 1/2 stars out of 4.
The film is rated PG for mild thematic elements.