' ' Cinema Romantico: Christmas in Vienna

Monday, December 14, 2020

Christmas in Vienna

2020’s “Christmas in Vienna” arrives on the heels of 2019’s “Christmas in Rome”, the Hallmark Channel’s recent foray into productions extending beyond their usual Canadian backlot environs. If it sounds like a cheap way to draw viewers in, director Maclain Nelson’s film is not just a tourist postcard for the benefit of people watching from home who can’t go anywhere courtesy of a pandemic. If we sometimes take production design and location work for granted in Hollywood blockbusters, you don’t realize how crucial it is in Hallmark-land until you watch a dozen of these movies and become zombiefied to the sameness. In the recent “Christmas Lane”, for instance, the eponymous shopping district is meant to be an old fashioned alternative to Denver’s new-fangled high rises, though second unit footage of Colorado’s capital sprinkled in cannot disguise that Christmas Lane is merely Hallmark’s familiar village set repurposed yet again, counteracting the ostensible magic this location is intended to conjure. In “Christmas in Vienna”, on the other hand, it is not so much St. Stephen’s Cathedral that sticks out as the wintry light looking right in the low skies, the extras genuinely bundled rather than trying to appear cold during obvious middle-of-the-summer filming conditions. Indeed, characters simply walking through Vienna’s Christkindlmarket provides the kind of sense of place that these films can never manufacture on their own.

The story. Right. Of course. Jess (Sarah Drew) is an American violinist who has come to Vienna for a concert. Staying with her college roommate, however, she becomes part-time nanny to three kids, two of whom are inevitably struggling to come into their own, and whose Dad just happens to be Mark (Brennan Elliot), the American diplomat with whom Jess Meets Cute in an early scene. These movies frequently sink or swim on account of their Meet Cutes and this one is solid, not putting them at odds but presenting them as kindred spirits, meaning their romance turns less on having to overcome a series of inevitably boring barriers than each one helping the other realize what they want most of out life.

At the same time, though, that’s where “Christmas in Vienna” struggles. The chemistry between Drew and Elliot is solid, granted, as they appear energized by the actual Austrian locations in their myriad walk and talk scenes. And Drew does a solid job selling her personal crisis in moments of dialogue even as the conception of this crisis lets her down. That crisis is her character not wanting to play violin anymore, which we only learn after Jess says it and which the movie does nothing on its own to sell, not in the lead-up to this confession or the aftermath, a reminder of how rarely Hallmark Christmas movies are allowed to think of story in truly visual terms. Mark, on the other hand, alternates between stammering and insecure and charming and careerist, dueling notions that Elliot can’t quite sell as much as he needs to though the blatant push/pull in the writing does him no favors. His role as a diplomat exists simply to fuel the drama - will he move his family to Zurich for a professional opportunity or won’t he? - and the chance to see this sometimes bumbling guy bumble his way through foreign affairs goes unexplored.

I don’t need to tell you how this one ends, of course, just as I don’t need to tell you how any of these movies end. That Jess is a part-time nanny means she becomes a surrogate mother for these three kids struggling to deal with the mother they lost. And though Jess is at least allowed to maintain her professional commitment in re-realizing the love of the violin, she can only find it once she has assumed her proper societal role within the context of a nuclear family. Shoot in Vienna, shoot in the British Columbia backlot, but that part, I guess, never really changes. 

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