Christmas movie review: The Claus Family

(image courtesy IMDb (c) Netflix)

As anyone who has ever experienced great loss will tell you – grief does not take a holiday.

When you are wrapped in its necessary but deadening hold, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when you laughed, when you simply let yourself relax and be, and when, for instance, you embraced a special time of the year like Christmas with the enthusiasm and joy of old.

On the surface, throwing yourself into Christmas looks like the perfect antidote to the misery of grief but it’s not that simple and try as you might, as this reviewer did on the first Christmas after his father passed away in 2016, you can’t quite get to the point where everything feels as wondrous and happy as it once did.

In The Claus Family (De Familie Claus), teenager Jules (Mo Bakker) who has just moved from the Netherlands to a picture perfect town in Belgium with his mother Suzanne (Bracha van Doesburgh) and younger sister Noor (Amber Metdepenningen) to be close to his paternal grandfather Noël Claus (Jan Decleir) – it’s all the name, my friends, pay attention to the names – is struggling mightily with the aftermath of the loss of his beloved dad just one year earlier.

Christmas was a big event on the Claus family’s calendar, for reasons that become perfectly obvious later on in the film which is, and let’s be honest joyfully so, as subtle as a bathtub of eggnog washing over you, and Jules can’t conceive of how you can enter into the spirit of the most wonderful of the time of the year when it doesn’t feel even remotely wonderful.

His devoted mum is determined, with a grim determination to try push through her own grief, partly for herself but mostly with an eye on her kids’ happiness, to celebrate like they used to do, something Noor is entirely and garrulously into, toy rabbit always in hand, but Jules is having none of it, convinced that Christmas died with his father.

In some ways you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t the most original premise for a Christmas film since getting over or coming to terms rather (for who ever gets over grief, really?) but The Claus Family, for all its fairytale Christmas light-decorated streets and trees bedecked with baubles, takes this idea and really goes deep into exploring what grief is like when it comes to major events, especially ones that were central to the relationship between the bereaved and the departed.

Sure, it has its light and cliched moments – the driven, Scrooge-like boss (who’s actually fun in her dementedly officious way thanks to Mieke De Groote), Suzanne’s demanding mother (played with caring exasperation by Renée Soutendijk), the caring coworkers, Santa and the elves racing to save Christmas and on and on – but amidst all these expected elements, which it uses brilliantly well by the way, the film pours a great deal of thoughtfulness and meaning into its narrative which manages to be both Christmassy and ruminative all at once.

What The Claus Family does acknowledge in a way that cuts to the quick is how each person deals with grief in a very individual way – Jules is angry, refusing to participate in putting up the tree or be jolly in any way, shape or form, despite Noor’s entreaty to do so, while Suzanne, close to tears much of the time, throws herself headlong into a “cookie revolution” at the Wonka-like bespoke factory where she works by secretly throwing new recipes literally into the mix in an attempt to save the place and give her life some new meaning (in this she is aided by her delightful coworkers Farid and Jet, played by Issam Dakka and Sien Eggers respectively).

Someone else who is at a loss to know what to do next is Jules’ grandfather Noël who, and this will surprise precisely no one, is secretly Santa Claus, possessor of a magical snowglobe that transports him around the world to precise points on the globe instantly.

Jules discovers his identity quite by accident one day when he and Noor are being babysat at Noël’s store, and while he is initially thrilled by the enormous secret being revealed, soon finds himself unsure what to do with the fact that he has been born into a generations-long line of Santa Clauses, all aided by four hilarious elves – effervescently fun Gunna, Ikka and Assa (Eva van der Gucht, Josje Huisman and Janne Desmet respectively) and grumpy but hidden of gold-ish Holger, played with impish churlishness by Stefaan Degan – and who are the only thing standing between the kids of the world and a present-less festive season.

There is, of course a whole saving Christmas vibe going on, and while The Claus Family has a lot of highly original fun with this idea, not least, how the presents are delivered and the presence, or rather absence, of several key parts of Santa’s kit, it’s main focus is on how Jules finds a way through at least this part of his journey with grief and comes to appreciate how the joy of Christmas his father gave him will never leave him.

It might seem like the most obvious of end points, and in many ways it is, but the film has gone to such empathetic, insightful lengths to establish how grief has assailed the family and how they are struggling to find their way out from under it, in ways that feel authentic and emotively identifiable, that it rings true in a way that is actually quite affecting.

Again, a happy ending in a Christmas film is hardly a shocking revelation, but this one, which is beautifully done, as much a richly emotional treat as a visual one, feels earned and special and something that you can take a hold of, as palpable as the mass of Christmas lights on the home across the cobble-stoned alley of neighbour Ella (Pommelien Thijs) who is wise beyond her years and has some sage insights for the family, especially Jules.

The Claus Family is an uplifting joy, not least of its melodically rich music, its measured narrative and its thoughtful characterisation, but because it understands that while we all want to embrace the excitement and lightness of the Christmas season, sometimes that just isn’t possible, at least not instantly, and we must come to terms with how the season expresses itself now in our own ways while also coming together as a family or a group to remember the person who made this most perfect of yearly events come alive in the first place.

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