Quiet and lovely. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, a 2008 Hallmark Channel original movie based on a Louisa May Alcott short story. Starring Helene Joy, Tatiana Maslany and the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset in a well-tuned performance, An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving stays tightly focused on its sweet story, avoiding inflated dramatics and showy camerawork for a simple yet resonant take on Alcott's holiday themes. There's a nice bonus documentary on the making of this handsome-looking film included here, as well.
In cold, snowy 19th century, post-war New Hampshire, the Bassett family is struggling to keep their heads above water. Living on a tenant farm - with the rent several months past due - recently widowed Mary Bassett (Helene Joy) must put on a brave face with Thanksgiving approaching in two weeks. With the larder empty, and no money to purchase food, let alone a fancy feast to celebrate the holiday, Mary can only smile and suggest they sew a quilt with leftover scraps of clothes to commemorate what's truly important about Thanksgiving: love and family. Dependable middle daughter Prudence (Vivien Endicott Douglas) takes this news stoically, while youngest Solomon (Gage Munroe) still believes that somehow, they'll have a Thanksgiving complete with turkey and pies. Headstrong eldest daughter Mathilda (Tatiana Maslany), however, refuses to fall back on her siblings' wishful thinking and resignation.
An aspiring writer, Tilly sends an inflated, melodramatic letter to her suspected grandmother, Isabella Caldwell (Jacqueline Bisset), a wealthy woman living in New York City whom Tilly's close friend and landlord's son Gad Hopkins (Kristopher Turner), has tracked down for her. Fictionally detailing the family's rapidly downward-spiraling fate at the hands of gypsies and other Victorian calamities, Tilly's letter nonetheless contains a kernel of truth: the Bassetts are fighting for their very survival. So imagine Tilly's surprise when Isabella does indeed show up at the farm (Gad had told Tilly that her grandmother had thrown away her letter). Mary won't tell Tilly why she's kept Isabella a secret from the family, nor will Isabella tell Tilly the real reason for her's and Mary's estrangement, but before the Thanksgiving holiday is over, the Bassetts' lives will be fundamentally changed.
I was quite taken with the quiet, measured tone and delivery of An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving. Just for the record, I haven't read the Alcott short story upon which An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving is based, so I can't comment on the film's fidelity to the original source, nor can I tell you what may have been invented or condensed by screenwriter Shelley Evans and director Graeme Campbell. But one never knows what one is going to get with these cable telemovies - particularly the period ones - so I was pleasantly surprised with the calm, assured quality of this Canadian-produced feature. The highest compliment I can give it is to say it plays identically to the numerous TV period films that have been coming out of British television networks for decades - the undisputed masters of the historical TV drama. There's a reservation to An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving that doesn't betray a timidity with the drama - strong emotions are on display here in the story's various subplots - but rather a firm belief in the material to "sell itself," if you will. Fancy camerawork, overblown sets and period décor, and florid, exaggerated dramatics aren't needed with a well-plotted, well-motivated story that's emotionally resonant. Director Campbell lets the actors do the work, maintaining uncluttered camerawork as the actors keep it simple. Even the production design, which is flawless, with letter-perfect period detail, intelligent, appropriate costuming, and coolly evocative cinematography, doesn't overdo it. Shot in what appears to be a real period house, and not on sets, An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving's small budget actually works to its advantage, giving a credible approximation of the times, while not overwhelming the story with pictorial splendor.
The story itself is also a welcome diversion from the sometimes saccharine holiday affairs that show up on cable during the Thanksgiving and Christmas months. An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving doesn't avoid the harsher realities of life during the 19th century, with the subplot of Mary caring for people dying of scarlet fever - and eventually contracting it herself - helping to ground the eventual "giving of thanks" finale with some true feeling: back then, if you made it through the year without starving or dropping dead from disease, you can bet you were truly thankful, considering how common both occurrences were at that time. As well, the revelation that high-tone Isabella in reality came from common stock, and that she secured her fortune by sleeping with a senile, rich man and using their daughter as proof of a legitimate marriage - a ploy that caused the high-principled Mary to bolt from her distant mother's care - is strong stuff for a family holiday film. Telling, though; this revelation scene is handled in no more of a melodramatic fashion than any other scene in An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, but rather in a quiet, realistic manner.
The cast is quite good, too, with young Tatiana Maslany showing no fear in a potentially embarrassing scene where she prays to a bust of Lord Byron, dedicating her life and art to truth and beauty if he'll only save her family. That's a tricky scene to pull off; the slightest miscalculation and it could have come off as ridiculous and comical, but Maslany makes it charming and believable. Helene Joy is steady as the conflicted Mary, providing the expected Alcott maternal warmth that's required for the story's central conflict to work. As for Jackie Bisset, I'll exercise some self-control and resist the impulse to write a five-page entreaty here, imploring her to marry me. It's always such a cliché for reviewers to write that it's a shame talented actors like Jacqueline Bisset are never taken seriously because of their great beauty. I've always thought Bisset was a adroit, clever actress (often caught in bad vehicles, unfortunately), but I wouldn't trade greater recognition of her talents for one less second of her beauty captured up on the screen these past decades. Why should we have to choose between those two elements, as if beauty somehow is a lesser quality for a movie star than acting (you notice they never have this debate with actresses like Glenn Close or Meryl Streep)? Here in An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, Bisset gives a delightfully aware performance, with just a suggestion of mirth to it, that again points out what a skillful performer she still is...while showing how beautiful she's remained, as well. She's a heavy-hitter for a cable movie like An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, and her performance, combined with the film's thoughtful scripting, production design and direction, make for a low-key, charming success.
An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving looks quite nice in this anamorphically-enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer. Colors are delicately tones, and the image is sharp. Compression and authoring issues were not a factor. A solid presentation.
A surprisingly hefty Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio mix certainly allowed for crispness of dialogue, but there certainly wasn't much call on the soundtrack to utilize the process to its fullest. Still, it's better to have more than less. English subtitles and close-captioning are available.
There's a bonus doc, On Location, running 15:50 and used no doubt at the time by Hallmark to promote the film, that gives us a nice rundown on the film's production. The cast is interviewed, and we get a good sense of how much care was taken to get the proper look of the period.
A nice surprise: a gentle, thoughtful Thanksgiving story which succeeds because it stays focused on the emotional, well-crafted story at hand. Production values are absolutely correct without overwhelming the project, while the actors - particularly the delightful, gorgeous Jacqueline Bisset - keep it simple and honest. Lovely. I highly recommend An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.