' ' Cinema Romantico: Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane

Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane

“Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane” revolves around a secret – nay, two secrets. If these Hallmark Holiday movies typically begin with exposition bombs and unrepentant telegraphing to ensure the audience on its couch at home will not change the channel, “Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane”, based on a novel by Mary McDonough, resists. Yes, an opening airport conversation between Emma (Alicia Witt) and her sister Andie (Laura Leighton) establishes a few crucial details, but it is more notable for what it withholds, emblemized in the lead-in sequence where Emma won’t take a call from Ian, her good-for-nothing gluten-free pancake making ex-beau. And that withholding nature is what Witt, in the 2018 Hallmark Christmas Movie Performance of the Year, plays straight to, deliberately refusing to make eye contact with Leighton in their introductory scene, visually conveying the idea of something gnawing at her. You see it more explicitly in a later scene where she clenches a wooden nutcracker; you’d swear if director Maggie Greenwald held the shot just a little longer that Witt’s grip would grind that nutcracker to dust.

That is not to suggest Witt is simply playing a Grinch destined to transform into a merry Celebrant. She deftly toes the line, glimpsed in the scene where she first encounters Morgan Shelby (Colin Ferguson), an old foe destined to become her flame, while also encountering an old family friend. Witt throws shade at the former even as she simultaneously, earnestly glows toward the latter, suggesting, contrary to popular belief, that occasionally, in the hands of the greats, characters on the Hallmark Channel can contain multitudes.

Those multitudes come to include her family home (on Honeysuckle Lane) which she returns to, along with Andie and their brother Daniel (Jordan Dean), to sell, both their parents having died, a metaphor for the past that kept her away for so many Christmases, re-visited in flashbacks where the diffused lighting meant to represent the fuzziness of memory instead lends the appearance of a soap opera. It is a home filled with antiques in need of appraisal, causing Emma to enlist the town’s foremost antique appraiser, who, of course, is Morgan. This might be by narrative default, but their transition from at odds to in love nevertheless comes off because rather than just passing the screenplay’s mile markers, they really seem to come to enjoy one another’s company.

Together Emma and Morgan unearth clues about her parents’ history, lending her emotional clarity, though she, and eventually Andie, choose to keep these clues from their brother. That might sound like a convenient means of delaying the reveal until late to spur a third act dramatic confrontation, but in the case of Daniel it is entirely narratively copacetic. He repeatedly implores that this Christmas, the last one on Honeysuckle Lane, needs to be perfect, pleas that Dean dresses up in a nigh jittery verbal inflection and a squinty facial expression evoking Nathan Fillion if he was a legit basket case rather than comically harried. I don’t think the movie realized it, but this poor guy needs therapy.

But if he seems set to explode, he never does, just as the secrets, when finally brought to bear, are not nearly as disreputable as the movie seems to be claiming. But that, alas, ties into the movie’s failure to honor Witt’s impeccable acting unpredictability by turning totally predictable, and not in fun ways but hoary ways, like Ian turning up at just the wrong moment and putting an engagement ring on Emma’s finger that gets stuck meaning Morgan sees it and yada yada. And though I admittedly sign away the rights to most critical concerns the moment I click on the Hallmark Channel, Emma, as written and played, screams of someone who hold that ring up for everyone to see and say “Nope! Stuck!” Seriously, Hallmark, don’t hang Alicia out to dry.

Still. Despite pivoting off an ancient sort of misunderstanding, the conclusion finds emotional truth, particularly because even if the script conspires to keep Emma and Morgan apart, it does not mystically rush them back into one another’s arms at the end. No, it allows them to sit down and communicate, a surprisingly affectionate scene where Ferguson actually has his character just sit and listen to what she has to say. Contrary to Hallmark’s slogan, finding love at Christmas does not require a miracle; it requires acting like two grown ass adults.

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