The idea for the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar (there’s probably a much simpler title out there) is simple; a film each day in the build up to Christmas that isn’t your standard Christmas film. Not like The Muppet Christmas Carol, Elf or Die Hard (that’s an argument for another day, or year), but one that might be set at Christmas but the holiday isn’t a major factor in the story of the film, or it’s simply mentioned a couple of times and made reference to throughout.
Opening the first door of this alternative advent calendar we find Martin McDonagh’s feature directorial and writing debut, In Bruges.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two hitmen (Ray and Ken), sent by their boss, Harry (a gloriously sweary Ralph Fiennes) to Bruges after a job goes wrong. There they must spend time acting as tourists, despite there being few sights apart from the local pub, until instructions arrive. While Gleeson’s character somewhat begrudgingly accepts Bruges, being the first to suggest visiting the top of the tower, Farrell’s unthoughtful, uncaring figure has no time for the area, with nothing taking his interest. Or at least not until he meets Chloe (Clémence Poésy), an actress on a film being shot near the hotel that the pair are hiding out at. It’s not long until Ray finds himself making conversation with the woman who seems to be the only good thing about his trip to Bruges, the more he sees her the more intrigued he becomes, the same going for the cocky American dwarf actor he continuously sees on a daily basis.
However, it’s not long until things begin to get much darker when they take a turn for the worst and the sinister world of crime and gangs is revealed in the most unsuspecting place. Allowing for McDonagh’s style of wonderfully funny dark humour to flow through with full effect. For a debut feature screenplay, having previously written a number of plays, McDonagh received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this film, winning the BAFTA in this category, alongside also being nominated for Best British film. The screenplay is razor sharp, smart and, as already mentioned, very, very funny. Pushed further by the performances that truly bring the piece to life, Gleeson received a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA nomination for his performance in this film. Wonderfully getting across one of the greatest insults in cinema history, Ralph Fiennes getting the other in this same film (you’ll know them, and hopefully love them, when they come along). Similar awards success would be seen with McDonagh’s third, and most recent, feature Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
When it comes to the Christmas themes that lie throughout the piece the film is set at Christmas. Decorations can be seen all across the traditional, almost still medieval, city and its buildings, even if the holiday isn’t mentioned often. Ray’s arc over the course of the narrative almost has a slight familiarity to that of Scrooge – while he might not quite have the same change of heart he definitely has a slight difference in attitude as the film proceeds, and he spends more time with Chloe, or at least this appears to be the case at one point.
In many ways with the general style, tone and themes of In Bruges it could be viewed almost as the opposite of the standard Christmas film. Not quite giving the standard feeling of warmth, joy and charm that many have come to expect, and want from most films centred around the festive season. In Bruges is dark, slightly cold, sweary and violent. However, it does house some of the common themes and conventions of other films set during the festive season. That and the fact that it’s deeply funny and highly entertaining. Very much making it an alternative Christmas film.