If you’ve heard of The Christmas Candle at all, it may be because former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has been drumming up publicity for the movie. As chief executive of Dallas’ EchoLight Studios, which distributes faith-based titles such as this one, the socially conservative politician also has taken the opportunity to criticize Hollywood productions, noting that “the devil for a long, long time has had these screens for his playground.”
Let’s judge the film on its own merits: The Christmas Candle, based on a book by Texas minister Max Lucado, might be the ideal movie for Christians in search of family-friendly entertainment, but its appeal won’t stretch beyond that demographic. It’s hard to imagine this tale of tradition and miracles leading skeptics to contemplation, much less faith.
The film follows David Richmond (Hans Matheson, from such devilish fare as Sherlock Holmes and Clash of the Titans), a young minister who’s living in London in 1890 and questioning his faith. When a longtime fan of his sermons recruits him to work at her parish in tiny Gladbury, he hesitantly agrees. But the townspeople regard him cautiously, especially when they learn that he doesn’t believe in the village’s magical Christmas candle. As the story goes, every 25 years an angel visits Gladbury and blesses one candle. The candlemakers then give it to someone in the community, who prays, lights the votive and enjoys miraculous good fortune (sometimes literally: One such happy soul stumbled upon a hidden treasure).
Along the way, David meets another cynic, the sassy and lovely Emily (Samantha Barks from Les Miserables), and a number of wacky and well-meaning Gladbury residents, including Eleanor Hopewell, played by Britain’s Got Talent phenom Susan Boyle. She may sing like an angel, but her few sweet snippets of song don’t make up for her outlandish dearth of acting abilities.
Otherwise, the acting is quite good, with a supporting cast that includes John Hannah and Lesley Manville. Matheson, too, does a decent job making David a relatable character, even for a secular audience. Since his faith was shaken, he has devoted his life to helping people. He hands out food to the poor, finds an apartment for a pariah who’s pregnant out of wedlock and generally seems to care for the people around him. And while he thinks the whole Christmas candle story sounds cute, he doesn’t believe in the phenomenon of picking and choosing which prayers get answered. He’s also a fairly progressive pastor.
But The Christmas Candle makes it clear that David’s good deeds aren’t enough. Because he doesn’t believe in the magical story, he turns out to be the one lacking. Meanwhile, his (hardly radical) attempts to modernize the church end up being preposterously catastrophic.
All this might resonate with a Christian filmgoer who believes that faith is more important than humanistic actions and tradition trumps an ever-changing society. But for others — even believers who have a more progressive outlook — The Christmas Candle might feel more like alienation than anything heaven-sent.