DVD Review: Love's Christmas Journey. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 4 hours (two parts).
It's been a decade since the first of Janette Oke's "Love Comes Softly" books went onscreen, and they've even outlasted her writings. This film, like its two predecessors, is done in her style but not with her authorship.
How successfully? Let's find out.
We return to Oke's vision of the West, where big strapping cowboys tip a hat and help the womenfolk off carriages. And where a frontier town looks grubby only after a severe thunderstorm.
Well, it does have the occasional ruffian pulling guns or riding crazy through town. For them, there's Sheriff Aaron Davis, a ramrod who always seems to get the drop on the bad guys. Well, almost always. More on that later.
Into this (kinda) peaceful setting rides blonde, forlorn Ellie, his pretty sister, come to visit her widowed brother and two children for Christmas. Why forlorn? Well, she's widowed, too, as we see in frequent nightmare sequences where a tornado destroys a barn, along with her husband and daughter. (Apparently you're not supposed to remember a similar plot device in the 1996 movie Twister.)
Ellie is befriended by the townspeople, especially matronly Beatrice (JoBeth Williams, almost unrecognizable from her stint in the Poltergeist films in the 1980s). They join others in putting up Christmas decorations and coaching kids in a nativity play. Ellie also gets frequent visits from deputy Michael, in a subplot that takes little guessing to predict.
There's also a standard Bad Guy Boss -- you know, the Land Baron who wears black, sits at a big desk and speaks in polished accents. Alex is eager to learn where a planned railroad will go, so that he can buy up the land in its path. He secretly sends out henchmen to clear the way by beating and evicting some ranchers.
Among those he tries to pressure is Mayor Wayne (Sean Astin, who has worked in projects as varied as TV's 24 and cinema's The Lord of the Rings). Mr. Mayor has his own problems: He may have oversold the railroad, forecasting prosperity for the town before even knowing where the track would go.
The mayor is also leery of Erik, who has his eye on his daughter. Erik, you see, is the town's black sheep because his father was a robber who cleaned out the town some years back. When the mayor's barn is torched, he's quick to blame the young man.
All these subplots boil to an improbable crisis at once. Erik is jailed after he's accused of burning the barn. Aaron is jumped by an outlaw and left for dead. Michael searches for him and goes missing. Christopher tries to find his dad, too, and promptly gets lost in the wild. The storm rips through the Christmas decorations everyone made so painstakingly. Even Ellie falls into danger as she tries to ferret out Alex's shady dealings.
No worries. All turns out well, including the sheriff's fate. He's found and nursed to health by a kindly, jolly, white-haired old man. His name? Nicholas (nudge, wink).
The show is clearly produced as a TV miniseries (and it did air on The Hallmark Channel), with scenes conveniently broken up for commercials. Even so, it often drags. Yes, loving or wistful expressions look nice in lamplight. But how often can you repeat that shot before it gets old?
Not that the film lacks redeeming qualities. Mr. Mayor learns to see Erik for his own qualities, not those of his criminal father. The townspeople learn to place faith in themselves and one another, rather than outside help from a railroad. And Ellie grows close to Aaron's children and opens up to the warmth from her neighbors. It's a subtle, graceful lesson that love takes more forms than romance.
Natalie Hall does probably the best performance as Ellie, filling the role with a sad, brave dignity. Her expressive face flashes a bright smile or a playful indulgence, or fights to suppress tears. The script has her often pushing aside her own grief to help her friends or Aaron's children.
Ernest Borgnine, who died this past July at the age of 95, does an effortless job as Nicholas, chatting and chuckling as he takes care of Aaron. Greg Vaughan as the sheriff seems stiff at first, then shows a gentler side to his children.
If I were to grade Love's Christmas Journey against the other two Oke films I've seen, I'd put it at the top. It has juuuuust a little more of the rawness and random mishaps that must have hit frontier towns. And its spiritual lessons are woven more intricately into the plot.
Yeah, it still has courtesy and cleanliness and downright sweetness clinging to nearly every scene, like corn syrup. But hey, what do you expect for films that are titled Love's this or that?
If interested, you can find out more about this and the other 10 "Love" films on The Hallmark Channel website.
James D. Davis