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26 December 2022

The best new films to watch this Christmas

This year’s festive offerings, from The Silent Twins to Avatar.

By Ryan Gilbey

All I want for Christmas is a suitably Christmassy film. But one scene set to “Mary’s Boy Child” by Boney M doesn’t exactly make The Silent Twins (9 December) a festive treat. The picture charts the troubled lives of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin sisters of Barbadian heritage raised in 1970s Haverfordwest, where they retreated into their own private world after racist bullying. Not that you would know that from the movie, based on Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book, which leaves social and cultural context largely unexplored even after the sisters are detained indefinitely at Broadmoor, their sentence reeking of structural racism.

Their story has already spawned a TV drama, a documentary, a 1998 New Yorker article and songs by Manic Street Preachers and Luke Haines. Yet nothing has quite unwrapped its mysteries. The director, Agnieszka Smoczynska, rips visual coups straight from the Ken Russell playbook: a Broadmoor dance number, a lake of fizzy pop in a suburban living room, stop-motion animated interludes populated by fraying, twitchy puppets.

Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter play the sisters as children, Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance taking over from adolescence onwards, their tightly wound performances as clenched as their palatal fricatives (“We should shtop shmoking,” says June, sounding like Sean Connery). It was wise not to take the orthodox route of telling the story through the eyes of Wallace (Jodhi May), but some stabilising facts and analysis could only have helped. The sisters are remote and secretive. The film didn’t need to be.

The twisted black comedy Rimini (9 December) will hardly satisfy any cosy Christmas needs either, despite snowy scenes in the Italian resort of the title. The Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s first fiction film in nine years is a character study of the pony-tailed crooner Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), who performs at desolate hotels and shags his ageing fans for cash. Trudging around in a seal-fur coat (“My Viking pelt”), he is not above stealing from his senile father or shooting sex tapes to use in blackmail plots. A kind of enforced redemption awaits him, though, in the form of his demanding long-lost daughter.

How Rimini compares to the month’s other pop-star story I can’t say: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (26 December), starring the London-born Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston, hasn’t been shown to press at the time of writing. Nor has Avatar: The Way of Water (16 December). When James Cameron first transported viewers to the distant moon Pandora, Labour was in power. Technology was different back then. Or, to paraphrase another Cameron, the then leader of the opposition, 3D was the future once. The original Avatar grossed $2.79bn. Will this follow-up (still flying the flag for 3D) be a hit? Cameron directing Kate Winslet in a large body of water did rather well once before, I seem to recall. Disney is betting on it: there are three more sequels to come, stretching all the way into 2028 and (fingers crossed) the next Labour government.

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The Pale Blue Eye (cinemas, 23 December; Netflix, 6 January), adapted from Louis Bayard’s novel, promises gory fireside thrills, with a young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) assisting a police detective (Christian Bale) in an 1830s murder case. In Emancipation (Apple TV+, 9 December), Will Smith is hoping we can all forget about that slap and focus on his portrayal of the enslaved man known as “Whipped Peter”, whose suffering helped accelerate the abolitionist cause.

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So much for Christmas cheer. But wait – there’s one gift left to open. Le Pupille (Disney+, 16 December) is a 37-minute short produced by Alfonso Cuarón (Roma) and directed by the brilliant Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro). Her command of mood, performance and composition is exemplary in this poetic tale of Christmas at an Italian orphans’ boarding school during wartime. A pretty nun sports a full moustache; a nativity scene features bored angels dangling on wires and a curly-haired Jesus materialising miraculously in the manger; a glamorous high-society dame (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) arrives with a tremendous pudding and a plaintive request.

These moments cohere into a reflection on the nature of goodness, sacrifice and generosity. Rohrwacher uses freeze frames, sped-up film, musical numbers and a spry, puckish score (by Cleaning Women, who fashion their instruments from household items) that tickles the ears. It’s a gem that deserves to rival The Snowman as a festive favourite.

[See also: The highs and lows of Christmas TV 2022]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special