I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Christmas rom-com genre possesses the most overwhelming film catalog out there. Replete with enough titles to fill the Library of Congress a couple of times over, it’s virtually impossible for new entries into the category to find even a millimeter of new thematic or narrative ground to cover. Its hit-or-miss ratio is also, unsurprisingly, astoundingly unbalanced. Sometimes, though, a Christmas miracle presents itself, and a brave, inspired filmmaker dives headfirst into the perilous genre and manages to strike gold.
This year, that director was Mary Lambert—yes, the visionary behind the iconic 1989 horror film Pet Sematary (and Pet Sematary Two, of course). Her Christmas movie? Netflix’s own A Castle for Christmas. The film follows acclaimed American author Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) who jets off to Scotland after being semi-canceled for killing off her series’ beloved protagonist. There, she falls in love with a big ol’ Scottish castle called Dun Dunbar, where her grandfather was a groundskeeper, and buys it (because why not?). To make things deliciously complicated, the property is owned by hunky-yet-frosty Duke Myles (Cary Elwes), and Sophie can only take over as proprietor once she’s proven she can handle the upkeep. Oh yes, that means sharing a living space with Mr. Saucy Duke himself.
Of course, this plot isn’t exactly groundbreaking. For starters, it turns out that Christmas movies involving royalty are very popular: My Christmas Prince, Christmas with a Prince, A Princess for Christmas, A Christmas Princess...you get the idea. And Lambert and writing team Kim Beyer-Johnson, Ally Carter, Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippy Dobrofsky, aren’t exactly doing anything new by revisiting the “we-hate-each-other’s-guts-but-also-secretly-love-each-other” format. But A Castle for Christmas is successful in large part precisely because it leans into this audience-endorsed formula with such ardor and earnestness. So when the unrealistic—yet highly entertaining—conflict is set into motion, it works because the film’s general electricity leads us to actually believe that everyone in this world really, really, really cares about Christmas more than absolutely everything else and, unless you’re a total grinch, the power of the holiday makes just about anything possible. We’re never led to believe that anything other than a magical just-in-time-for-Christmas romance is right around the corner, but in A Castle for Christmas, this predictability is comforting.
A lot of the film’s Christmassy legwork is done by Sophie and Myles. From the moment they meet, their dynamic is captivating. This is due, in large part, to the surprising yet inspired casting. Shields plays Sophie as naturally sweet, sophisticated and disarming, while Elwes is a loveable grump (even if his Scottish accent leaves something to be desired) and, yes, he somehow still possesses the same heartthrob qualities from The Princess Bride 30 years later. It makes it that much more gratifying when they finally let those inhospitable walls down. (I’ll note, though, that it also makes it a little disappointing that there are a great deal more squabbling scenes than romantic ones.)
Of course, sometimes the formula doesn’t work in the film’s favor. Its sterile, overproduced look—which is typical in Christmas flicks (especially of the Hallmark variety)—detracts from its pleasant, human atmosphere. When we first meet a group of people in the Scottish inn Sophie first sets up camp at, the scene is distractingly bright; it looks like someone forgot to dim a fully boosted LED light. This harshens the film’s fantasy of a cozy, glowing Christmas, as does the pristine interior of the castle, which looks just a little too much like a set. For the most part, the shots are framed in a similarly clean and sterile way. This is especially frustrating because the film wasn’t actually shot on a set, but on location in and around Barnbougle Castle in South Queensferry, Scotland. Still, there are many times where the choice to shoot on location proves to be an inspired one: When Sophie ventures outside the landscape shots are often truly exquisite, with sweeping aerial shots that show the immensity of Scotland, and images of crumbling castles that embed us in the country’s history. These almost make us feel like we’ve made the journey right alongside Sophie. (The genuine Scottish actors help with this, too.)
And then there are moments when A Castle for Christmas totally defies expectations. It’s pretty rare to see a love story that revolves around a couple over 50—especially when their age isn’t used as some sort of plot device. It’s totally refreshing, but never draws attention to itself. Sophie’s friends also defy rom-com expectations: These films will more often than not give you a quirky bestie, but the woman that Sophie connects with, Maisie (Andi Osho) doesn’t simply exist as a foil for our protagonist. She doesn’t try to convince Sophie to be with Myles at all costs. Instead, she is smart and thoughtful. She even has a love story of her own, which seems to have been conceived for the purpose of simply being interesting in and of itself.
In its unapologetic leaning into tropes, stellar casting, idyllic locations and occasional venturing off of the beaten path, A Castle for Christmas does something totally underrated: It gives us exactly what we want this holiday season. Even the film’s own grinch—Myles—is able to find some joy in the occasion. I’d be surprised if that isn’t also the case for the film’s most cynical viewers.
Director: Mary Lambert
Writers: Kim Beyer-Johnson, Ally Carter, Neal H. Dobrofsky, Tippy Dobrofsky
Stars: Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho, Tina Gray, Eilidh Loan, Stephen Oswald
Release Date: November 26, 2021 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.