Whether you are staring out a frosted window, eggnog in hand, onto a snowy, pine-clad landscape in the northern hemisphere or sitting on the verandah of your summer rental down south, wine in hand and salad on the table in front of you, work long since forgotten, there is something impossibly romantic about Christmas.
For just about all of us mere mortals, it’s romance with a lower case “r”, the kind that feels wafty and warm and innately comforting, a delicious sense of peace on earth, goodwill to all men (and women) and joy to the decking the halls world.
But for some people, it’s all-cap ROMANCE in neon with signage so obvious a blind underground mole couldn’t miss it, and it’s precisely what is front and centre in the by-the-numbers festive romantic comedy, A Castle For Christmas.
While the title might sound like the title of a catalogue of Christmas gifts for the mega rich, it refers far more prosaically to the impulse buy of an ancestral seat of Scottish power, Dun Dunbar Castle, owned by the 12th and likely last Earl of Dunbar, Duke Myles (Cary Elwes) by wildly successful American author Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) who has fled to Scotland to escape the furore of Stateside fans about the death of a beloved, twenty book strong protagonist.
Oh, and a divorce that has left wondering what it is she wants from life; well, a castle presumably for that is what she gets but first, and here A Castle For Christmas ticks the first of many expected narrative boxes, she must stay in the seen-better-days residence for three months to prove she has what it takes to run it.
Actually, and if you’ve only watched even a few rom-coms where opposites attract, it’s so the Duke can make life so miserable for her that she up and leaves him to his peaceful life which is tad shortsighted since without that sale, he’s going to solve ownership of Dun Dunbar anyway.
But hark, you ask yourself, why is Sophie even at this particular pile of bricks anyway? Surely there’s a funky downtown residence in hip and urbane Edinburgh that might fit her New York tastes a whole lot better?
Well, yes, quite possibly, but Sophie’s father once worked at the castle as a groundskeeper, and her familial attachment to the place drives her back to the Dun Dunbar and the cute as a postcard village below it to find that missing piece of her made bare by divorce and career troubles.
So, she arrives in the village to stay at the pub, where she meets and becomes near-instant besties with the knitting circle there – Rhona (Eilidh Loan), Helen (Tina Gray), pub owner Maisie (Andi Osho) and gay widower Angus (Stephen Oswald) – who are, hands down, the beating heart and soul of this cheesefest of festive romance.
Naturally, her first meeting with the Duke is feisty – she mistakes him for the hired help and asks for a tour of Dun Dunbar outside of hours – but even though they clash, somewhat innocuously it must be said, it is writ large upon the large stone walls of the castle that they shall kiss, fall in love and live happily ever after in a Scottish idyll of their own making.
That much is obvious going on, as is much of the plot which follows the course you would expect of a movie devoted to love and romance at the most impossibly romantic and wonderful time of the year.
And honestly, why would you not do that? What we want from movies like this is a gloriously reassuring sense that the bad things of life can quickly be erased by the fantastically escapist good, something that is driven home with bareknuckled surety in A Castle For Christmas.
So far, so much exactly as you’d expect.
For all its cheesy obviousness, and abrupt plot progression that has them swooning at each other without any sense of slow and steady gradations leaving it all feeling less like destiny and more like unearned true love, what makes A Castle For Christmas a delight to watch is its fastidious fostering of a sense of cosy intimacy and belonging.
This comes courtesy of Sophie’s devoted daughter Lexi (Vanessa Grasse) who is there for her mum whenever she needs it, but mostly from the delightfully idiosyncratic village set, including the aforementioned members of the knitting set, the Duke’s righthand man and childhood friend Thomas (Lee Ross) who is as garrulous and fun as the Duke is manifestly not, and even taxi driver Eamon (Anthony Strachan) whose company is called “Highland Taxis” just in case you’re wondering about the Scottishness of it all.
(In many ways, A Castle For Christmas feels like an American’s fevered dream of what Scotland is like from the strong accents to the singing of “Loch Lomond” to the tartan liberally placed on everything; think The Simpsons in Australia in “Bart vs. Australia“ in season six and you’ll have some idea.)
For all its lack of subtlety and resolutely determined adherence to each and every element of a classic festive rom-com, it’s the warmth and inclusiveness of the people and the locale that make A Castle For Christmas you’ll be happy to inhabit.
Yes, much belief has to be suspended – what writer in their right mind would prevaricate on their books being stocked in the castle’s gift shop? – and many romantic flights of fantasy have to be undertaken, but that’s half the fun of it, and where it all feels too rote or over the top twee and obvious, you have the humanity of the people who become Sophie’s family to make it all feel immeasurably and warm hug better.
A Castle For Christmas is not by any means perfect, and there are times when eyes will be rolled and dissatisfaction with the clunky nature of love’s journey remarked upon, but overall, it is the rich and comforting warm embrace you need and crave at Christmas, especially after a year when the idea of happy endings feel far off and distant and you wonder, more than once, if there isn’t a castle of welcoming, loving people just waiting to beckon you in and make you part of their forever family.