The best movies on TV this Christmas

Our guide to the season's cinematic offerings

Once upon a time every household had one. Its hallowed pages worn, relentlessly plundered, curled around the edges. A good book which gave guidance to the satiate multitudes, slouching towards the remote control, grafted to the sofa in the misty depths of winter.

That book is, of course, the Christmas edition of the Radio Times. All 280 glossy pages of the 2012 edition landed on my desk this morning, and having trawled through the listings, it appears we are in for a season of sequels, classics and “family friendly” tripe. Same as it ever was.

But this is no reason to despair. Christmas viewing is unlike any other. It takes place in a world outside time, in a sherry-fuelled vortex in which all films are transfigured, forgiven the usual prejudices simply because they are on, and the audience has lost all motivation to do anything but watch TV.

Five years ago, squinting at a small TV in the attic of my auntie’s house in Northern Ireland, I watched a man cut off his own tongue. In that moment, having flicked onto the film by accident, I was introduced to the wonders of Korean horror. And so, in that spirit, here are a handful of recommendations culled from the thousands of films scheduled to be broadcast over the festive season. Most of them are playing in the wee small hours, when the family are in bed, the wine is flowing, and the snow (delete as appropriate: rain, sleet, apocalypse) is setting in.

23 December

The action starts on Sunday evening, so use your Saturday to maximum effect. Stock the fridge and have all presents ready to be wrapped. Lock the door, usher the kids upstairs (profanity ensures), pour a drink and tune in for In Bruges (11pm, C4) to see why director Martin McDonagh’s recent Seven Psychopaths was a step in the wrong direction. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson hide out on the continent, awaiting instructions from their gangster boss (Ralph Fiennes) after Farrell’s character Ray accidentally kills a young boy on his first day as a hitman. This lurid and evocative exploration of guilt and redemption is a must – the film for which McDonagh earned his stripes, and the eager attention of Hollywood investors…

If you’re lucky enough to have the digital movie channels, The Descendants will debut at 10.15pm on Sky Premier, for those who fancy something more straightforwardly dramatic. The film, by Sideways director Alexander Payne, sees George Clooney in a Hawaiian shirt, giving what could his most honest and impressive lead performance as the sole trustee of a large stretch of undeveloped Hawaiian land. He must juggle two daughters and a comatose wife, who has just discovered was cheating on him before hospitalisation. The setting, music, pace and power of Clooney’s set pieces opposite family members makes this a memorable tear-jerker well worth seeing. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a lighter touch, Superbad is on Channel 5 (11pm) – a douche bag high school comedy starring the one from Arrested Development (Michael Cera) and the young Mr Potato Head (Jonah Hill).

24 December

Christmas Eve is a little tepid this year, but you could do worse than introduce any uninitiated youngsters to the Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s infectious and at times genuinely creepy Nightmare Before Christmas (9.10am, BBC2). Elsewhere there are four cinematic adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (A Christmas Carol, 8.30am, C4; The Muppet Christmas Carol, 11am C4; Scrooge, 4.10, C5; A Christmas Carol, 6.45, BBC1), and he night brings Joe Cornish’s directorial debut Attack the Block (9pm, Film4). Best known as the hairier half of BBC 6 Music duo Adam and Joe, Cornish’s film is a sci-fi thriller set on a fictional south London estate, in which a group of ruffians are forced to work together when a batch of Gremlin-like beasties fall from the sky. For fans of Kick Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Shaun of the Dead.

Though not quite a movie, most Twitter-patter is likely to revolve around The Snowman and The Snowdog (8pm, C4), a sequel to the animated flat white that was The Snowman (1978). The “film” lasts 24 minutes and is made up of 200,000 individual drawings, based on the original cartoon, and approved by Snowman creator Raymond Briggs, who says:

It would have been cashing in to do it before. Now it won’t do any hard, and it’s not vulgar and American. I’ve never touched a computer, or anything like that. CGI makes everything too perfect, but [the filmmakers] are sticking to the old ways.

For some colourful frolicking in a writers’ colony on the south coast, there’s always Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe (10.40, BBC HD), adapted from the (superior) comic strip by Posy Simmonds.

25 December

Moving on, Channel 4 are offering a chance to watch the three Lord of the Rings films this year, one each day, beginning on Christmas with The Fellowship of the Ring (5.40, C4). This slot tends to be reserved for a notable premier, but with The Hobbit currently causing headaches and Gollum impressions up and down the land, screening the trilogy will provide viewers an opportunity to confirm that a) yes, they were better and b) 3 hours is more than enough time in which to adapt a book. Even a long one.

Later in the evening, after bidding farewell to loved ones and knocking up a Turkey sandwich, the Bourne Identity (9pm) will be playing for thrills on ITV2, after which Woody Allen’s Scoop (11.15pm, BBC HD) and Airplane! (1.05am, C4) will provide some light relief. And if you haven’t already seen it, push yourself to try out something a little darker in Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy (11.20pm, Film4), which has rather bizarrely played every Christmas over the last few years. This unforgettable revenge tragedy, which channels the nightmares of ancient Greece into a dystopian Korea, has been remade by Spike Lee, and will be in cinemas in late 2013.

While I’m trying to stick to what I still anachronistically refer to as the “analogue” channels, or at least the ones available for free through a set-top box, the digital film channels are doing great things this Christmas, including back-to-back screenings of the last four Harry Potter (3.45pm) movies, followed by the timeless Taxi Driver (1.45am, Modern Greats). The Coen brothers’ impeccably executed remake of the John Wayne western True Grit (8pm, Indie) will play before Quentin Tarantino’s misshapen but remarkable cult classic Pulp Fiction (10pm). For those seeking romance, witness the birth of the modern rom-com and the late Nora Ephron’s best-loved work in When Harry Met Sally (11.10, TCM).

26 December

Boxing Day this year belongs to Alfred Hitchcock. In HBO’s The Girl (9pm, BBC2), Toby Jones plays a convincingly monstrous Alfred Hitchcock, who develops a tortuous obsession with the model Tippi Hedren, played by the comparably wide-eyed and much-photographed Sienna Miller. Jones throws down before Anthony Hopkins, who will star in the biopic Hitchcock, to be released in February next year, giving Hollywood more than a run for its money. Following this is the real Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut from 1940, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (10.30pm, BBC2), which is in turned followed by Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock (12.35am, BBC2) - the comedian’s “interview” with the dead auteur from a few years back. Yet more franchise action awaits on Channel 4, and if you’ve not yet watched them, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film trilogy is excellent, and kicks off at 10.30pm on Channel 4.

In Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (11.15pm, ITV1), set in the years leading up to, including and after the second world war, there is a long tracking shot across a Dunkirk beach, spattered with wounded soldiers and smoking guns. The camera moves up a sandbank in search of leading man James McAvoy, passing a young soldier staring at a book with a rife in his lap. That, dear reader, is me. £50 a day and three hot meals. The life of an extra is very fine indeed.

And the rest

Christmas viewing need not end on Boxing Day. Picks for the following week include 2011’s Wuthering Heights (11.10pm, C4, 29th), by the superbly talented director of Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, and Duncan Jones’s / Zowie Bowie's Moon (10pm, BBC2, 30th), which offers a final curative to any lingering holiday sentimentality. The appropriately named actor Sam Rockwell plays a contract operative mining on the far side of the moon and planning his return to earth after three years away, who is stopped in his tracks when felled by a mysterious accident. On New Year’s Day Pixar’s best effort in recent years Up (6.30pm, BBC1) will prove pleasurable for viewers of all ages, and on the 2nd you can ready yourself for the Royal year ahead by watching Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby (1.05am, C4), in which a powerful and incestuous cult take charge of a young woman’s womb.

“I’m telling you, Mary, the Hobbit is a two-parter at best.” It’s a Wonderful Life (7pm, Sky Classics, Christmas Eve)

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide