CINEMA / A miracle on 34th Street? Bah, humbug

THE PROBLEMS with Les Mayfield's Miracle on 34th Street (U) begin with Richard Attenborough's beard. A trim white floss that covers the jowls like shaving foam, it is by normal standards a very respectable growth. But these are not normal standards. They have been set by Edmund Gwenn, who played the Attenborough role of Kris Kringle, the bonhomous old cove who may or may not have been Santa Claus, in the original 1947 Miracle. Gwenn's beard embodied the Christmas spirit, a great snowy bush sticking jauntily out in front of him like an outstretched hand of welcome. It was so luxuriant that the nine-year-old Natalie Wood, in one of the most adorable child performances in movie history, gave it a tug, as if doubtful that such generosity could be real.

That is the theme of Miracle on 34th Street (whichever version): it asks whether the warm spirit of Christmas is credible in the cold, materialistic modern world. Kris Kringle is a cheery resident of an old people's home, who is corralled into playing Santa in a big New York toy-store when an actor is fired for drinking on the job. Kris belongs to the Method school of Santas. After doling out presents, he spends his spare time feeding reindeer in the zoo. He actually thinks he is Santa. His most difficult task is to convince the woman who hired him (Elizabeth Perkins), a disappointed divorcee who has banished sentiment from her life, and her down-in-the-mouth daughter (Mara Wilson). And soon he has to persuade a court he is not mad too.

He has a dedicated lawyer in Dylan McDermott, the young man who is wooing Perkins. But he cannot win over the audience. Like Attenborough's beard, the new film lacks the buoyancy of its model. Like so many remakes, it is caught between craven homage and uneasy reinvention. And for a celebration of the Christmas spirit, it is oddly gloomy. To emphasise the pain that has shaken her faith, Perkins plays the shop manager as a Manhattan Niobe. And in a misguided attempt at modernisation, we are given a lot more detail about her messy marriage than in the original. There Maureen O'Hara was hard but also sparkling - like a diamond. Likewise, in the new version, the clouds never lift from Mara Wilson's little face. Natalie Wood made you laugh with joy at every line; with Wilson you want to weep.

Elsewhere the new film needlessly complicates what was once both simple and subtle. John (Home Alone) Hughes has turned George Seaton's classic screenplay into a conspiracy thriller - it's the store's enemies who question Kris's sanity. This tips the scales of justice towards Kris from the start, whereas the original film was a sincere debate between rationalism and fantasy - which ended up taking the side of faith in goodness, while acknowledging that it meant rejecting reason. The new version unwisely omits the scene where Kris attacks a Freudian analyst - in which the whole theme was cleverly couched.

Hughes rarely works outside Chicago, and so this New York tale is shot in Chicago, with only the occasional cutaway to the Manhattan skyline. A good deal thinner than the 1947 film, it is also 15 minutes longer (which is symptomatic of modern film-making), and so slow-moving that you suspect that the editor was on Valium. Steven Spielberg is said to have urged Attenborough to take on the role of Kris Kringle in order to introduce a new generation of children to the classic. But they would be advised to ignore this travesty, gleaming and in colour though it may be, and stick instead to the whiskery original.

Camp, smart and funny, To Die For (15) is a gay version of Ghost. At its best, this British movie puts the gaiety back into gayness, after Hollywood's evasion and portentousness, and seeks to understand the tragedy of Aids rather than wring its hands over it. Thomas Arklie and Ian Williams play Simon and Mark, lovers living together in a fairly ``open'' relationship. Mark has Aids, and the early part of the film shrewdly examines the pair's different reactions to the disease. Simon stresses the positive: only by believing he can conquer it, will Mark stay healthy. But Mark knows he must accept death, if it is to have meaning for him. The end comes suddenly and matter-of-factly, but not, it turns out, finally.

Mark returns as a ghost, jealously obstructing Simon's new relationships, rescuing him from queer-bashers, and provoking some amusing dialogue (``What's the age of consent in paradise these days?''). Mark's return cues a bout of self-examination by Simon, which may not be a bad thing for him, but mushes up the film with maudlin conversations between him and his mother. There is also a cathartic finale, with descending angel (Wim Wenders meets Monty Python), which is meant to induce tears - but not of laughter. More intentionally humorous is Tony Slattery, as the boyfriend of the woman in the flat above, a councillor trapped in jargon, writing to express himself.

Trial by Jury (15) disintegrates after a promising opening. Joanne Whalley-Kilmer plays a jury member who is menaced by the Mafia. Almost everyone in the film, including William Hurt and Armand Assante, is out to get her, in every sense. The mystery is that the script should give them so little motivation.

Cronos (18) is for those who enjoy watching flesh being torn apart. An old junk-shop owner stumbles on an antique device, shaped like a gold Faberge egg, which turns out to have clockwork talons that pierce the skin, infusing the body with rejuvenating blood. The film traces his masochistic relationship with this Sadean object, in loving, ravishing detail. The film magazine Empire describes Cronos as ``nothing short of a near-masterpiece'' (nothing like going nearly the whole hog), but I found its elegance as excruciating as those precious pincers.

Cinema details and Quentin Curtis's Five Best films, see Review, page 90.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn