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MERRY CHRISTMAS (JOYEUX NOL) (article first published : 2006-12-18)

It was the perfect peace-on-Earth story for the festive season - and it happened in 1914, when the blood, gore and misery of war was put on hold for one special, memorable Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The event took place between trenches accommodating dirty, depressed and dishevelled French, Scottish and German soldiers involved in battles during World War 1. It was a temporary truce that led to enemies putting aside their differences for a few hours, sharing stories and gifts, burying their dead and praying and playing together.

This true story has now led to a fine film, Merry Christmas (Joyeux Nol), which has taken some while to reach Durban after having been Oscar-nominated as best foreign film earlier this year - an award it lost to South Africa's Tsotsi. Directed and written by Christian Carion, the drama centres on two Berlin-based opera stars who find themselves in the trenches on Christmas Eve and act as catalysts for the ceasefire and goodwill.

The way for temporary peace is paved by the carolling of singing star Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), who is now in uniform in the trenches. He has been visited by his former lover and operatic co-star Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), who has wangled a day pass to see him and join him in entertaining the troops.

Sprink's commanding officer, Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl of Goodbye Lenin and Ladies in Lavender), is initially against the entertainment, but when he hears Sorenson sing (Kruger miming, somewhat unconvincingly, to the voice of French soprano Natalie Dessay), he allows the carolling to continue. It's when Sprink breaks into a heartfelt Silent Night, with a small Christmas tree in hand, and receives bagpipe accompaniment from the distant trenches of the Scottish, that the ball is set rolling for a hesitant meeting of the three enemy leaders, who agree on a short truce.

They include Patrick Dempsey-lookalike Guillaume Canet as Audebert, leader of the French troops, a man worried about his wife, who is about to give birth to their first child, behind enemy lines; and Palmer (Gary Lewis, the father in Billy Elliot) as the Scottish representative, an Anglican priest.

When the truce is called it becomes clear to all who enjoy it that there can be hope for humanity amid chaos and carnage, but while unfolding this sentiment director Carion paints a darker closing chapter. It is instigated by the appearance of a blinkered clergyman (Ian Richardson) who thunders on in a sermon about the needs for the men to pull themselves together and recognise the need for, and urgency of, war.

Featuring commendable performances - although, notably, excluding that of Kruger who, if decorative, is every bit as wooden and ineffective here as she was as Helen in the bloated Troy - the film comes at a perfect time.

It spreads the Christmas message in a way that marks a welcome change from the garishly tinselly confections that are usually churned out at this time of year. Rating: 8/10. - Billy Suter




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