Transporting Tolstoy to Los Angeles, Bernard Rose’s Boxing Day is an entirely unfestive Christmas carol on altruism and greed.
Ice Cold In L.A. by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The third and penultimate film in Bernard Rose’s series of films based on novellas by Leo Tolstoy, Boxing Day‘s original literary title Master And Man is perhaps more revealing of the social tensions that run through the film. Updated to modern-day Los Angeles and filmed in handheld digital, Boxing Day follows a wealthy property investor and his hired driver heading out into the snow-covered mountain highlands to snap up foreclosed properties while others snooze in a post-Christmas slumber. Danny Huston is Basil, the avaricious capitalist on the prowl pitted against screenwriter Matthew Jacobs who here reprises his role as driver from The Kreutzer Sonata in feature-length form. The men are poles apart, but the friction here isn’t really class conflict as it is in Tolstoy’s original, Rose offering instead an interesting peek into the antagonisms of a more classless California.
Boxing Day opens on the first day of Christmas, Basil’s LA villa strewn with unwrapped presents and abandoned wine glasses. Rather than spend the holiday with his wife and children, Basil is storming the hinterland in search of lucrative real-estate deals. Rose’s digital aesthetic and jerky camera takes a little acclimatisation, and some of Boxing Day‘s improvised opening dialogues, as Basil cruises Los Angeles touching up contacts for the readies, are rather wooden, but with its existential tussle between the overbearing property magnate and his peevish driver Boxing Day really comes into its own. Passing from pleasant indifference to outspoken annoyance, the relationship between Basil and Nick is one of structural incompatibility, master and servant reacting against each other with incendiary volatility. Nick’s bungled attempts to remember directions or fill up with the right kind of gas drive his vulpine boss to distraction, while Basil’s demands to continue into the snowy mountains with neither break, food nor map are met with snippy, put-upon resignation.
There’s an international slant to their difference – sensitive and quietly spoken Englishman Nick pitted in a cross-cultural battle with forthright, cocksure Angeleno Basil. And it’s not just a case of the one not liking barbecue-flavoured chips (or even crisps), for when mutual love interest and bar server Carla deserts Nick and his flavoured oxygen bubbles in favour of a sneaky cigarette and a whisky-fuelled slow dance with Basil, Nick takes a jealous swipe at his employer, fabricating a tale of Basil’s wife calling dispatch asking him to call home. Their antagonism isn’t so much class difference as incompatible lifestyle choices, where every act, such as smoking in Nick’s car, escalates into biting personality clashes and infringements of assiduously fought power domains.
It’s only when master and man come unstuck on a patch of black ice that they give up on their get-rich-or-die trying folly, and shored up on the side of the road, Basil moves into the passenger seat in a show of survival solidarity. It’s perhaps fleeting, eventually abandoning the sleeping driver to his fate and heading off into the inky, ice-cold night in search of his own salvation. But the weight of Boxing Day‘s narrative trajectory slides towards a simple, fraternal embrace between these two incompatible men. And after Basil is lured back to the car, unknowingly hoodwinked by its illuminated headlights, it’s their warming, life-giving hug that allows Nick to survive. As Basil slips into death’s icy embrace.
Just as masters of yore would offer gifts to their servants on Boxing Day, Bernard Rose’s film is a Christmas parable in bridging the gap between superiority and fraternity. In Boxing Day, the gift Basil gives his man is life, power transformed into responsibility when the Devil starts to claw at the hindmost. Like Ivansxtc or The Kreutzer Sonata, Rose creates a unique world with his Tolstoyan take on Los Angeles, with Danny Huston as the arrogant and dirty-dealing businessman, and all wrapped up in a sweeping, classical score. The film’s modern-day psychological realism has all the weight of Russian literature, but given a grainy, digital relevance. It’s spare and at times clumsy, but Bernard Rose’s Boxing Day is a refreshingly frosty foray into peace on earth and good will to men on the first day of Christmas.
Boxing Day is released on 21st December 2012 in the UK