tue 25/06/2024

DVD/Blu-ray: The Holdovers | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The Holdovers

DVD/Blu-ray: The Holdovers

Bittersweet, beautifully observed seasonal comedy - not just for Christmas

Deck the halls: Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph

Glance at The Holdovers’ synopsis and you might suspect that Alexander Payne’s latest effort is a slice of lightweight seasonal schmaltz. Yes, it is set at Christmas, and contains tear-jerking moments, but Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson throw so much more.

The period detail has been much commented on, the early 1970s setting recreated with unfussy aplomb. Even the opening credits look vintage, the film’s digital footage processed to look like grainy analogue. Early scenes give little sense of where Payne will take us; what looks like a high-school comedy with a large cast quickly becomes something very different.

Paul Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a dishevelled, alcoholic classics teacher at the boys’ boarding school in New England which he attended decades before. Hunham is superficially on his uppers – a man disliked by fellow staff and students, with a prominent lazy eye and a whole heap of minor medical problems (trimethylaminuria among them – look it up!).

Holdovers packshotHunham’s initially snarky self-confidence keeps him afloat; he’s a man who will always have the last word, often hysterically so. That one of Hunham’s former students is now Principal is another source of indignity, Andrew Garman’s Dr Woodrup seeking to punish Hunham for giving a wealthy senator’s son deservedly poor marks and preventing him getting a place at Princeton.

Hunham’s forfeit is to stay on campus over Christmas to look after the five holdovers, students who are unable to spend the break with their parents. Four of the boys soon leave by helicopter to join a fellow-student’s rich parents on a skiing holiday, leaving Hunham with Dominic Sessa’s troubled-but-brainy Angus and school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son Curtis has recently been killed in Vietnam.

That these three disparate characters will eventually find common ground is a given: Hunham loosens up and starts to show what lies beneath the crusty exterior, and the reasons for Angus’s testiness are slowly revealed.

Mary’s presence is a continual reminder of the inequities on display; emotionally and intellectually needle-sharp, she’s stuck in a skilled but poorly paid job, her son (formerly a black scholarship student at the school) dead because she lacked the money and influence to avoid his being drafted – watch out for a tiny, heartbreaking sequence where Mary passes on Curtis’s baby clothes to her pregnant younger sister.

Hunham’s backstory becomes clearer, a throwaway glimpse of a prescribed medication highlighting how much he and Angus have in common. The comic moments are terrific: Hunham’s encounter with a now-successful Harvard contemporary is very funny, as is his taking Angus to visit a Boston museum. Hemingson’s screenplay neatly ties up the loose ends, and the final glimpse of a defiant Hunham made me want to applaud.

Payne secures superb performances from his three leads, Randolph deservedly winning an Oscar for best supporting actress. This is a film for life, not just Christmas, the retro stylings ideal for physical consumption: both Blu-ray and DVD come with enticing extras, including some brief deleted scenes plus interviews with director and cast and crew.

Mary’s presence is a continual reminder of the inequities on display


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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