25 Days of Christmas: ‘Comfort and Joy’ is an under-seen holiday gem

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Throughout the month of December, TV Editor Kate Kulzick and Film Editor Ricky D will review classic Christmas adaptions, posting a total of 13 each, one a day, until the 25th of December.

The catch: They will swap roles as Rick will take on reviews of classic television Christmas specials and Kate will take on Christmas movies. Today is day 10.

Comfort and Joy (1984)

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

What’s it about?

After his girlfriend unexpectedly leaves him, Allan “Dicky” Bird, a DJ in Glasgow, is headed towards a lonely Christmas when he gets wrapped up in an odd, escalating war between rival ice cream vendors.

Review

Many holiday films approach the season by embracing its scope and potential for grandeur. Comfort and Joy distinguishes itself by breaking from this tradition and embracing a smaller, more intimate take. Though it may be too slow for some, this character piece gives an accurate depiction of what Christmas is for many people- a lonely, regretful time of year made often more painful by the cheer surrounding everyone else.

This isn’t a new or revolutionary concept. It seems almost every year has at least one film about unhappy, dysfunctional people at Christmas. What Forsyth gets so right is his balance and tone. Unlike so many others of this ilk, while this is a film about an unhappy, lonely protagonist, it isn’t a depressing or maudlin film. The camera remains a neutral party, showing Bird’s listlessness without steamrolling or passing judgment over the happiness of the people around him.  If anything, this realistic approach makes his isolation all the more significant and relatable.

The film also makes a smart move in balancing Bird’s internal journey with the external forces in his life, particularly the surreal Ice Cream War, which it serves as the perfect distraction for both character and viewer. Right when Bird’s moping starts to become monotonous, the audience is taken on a delightful and strange detour. From the clear Godfather homages to the repeated assertions from Bird that everyone’s far too worked up about ice cream, this gives the film a bit of whimsy and keeps it from being bogged down in angst.

As with most character pieces, this film centers on one performance, in this case British character actor Bill Paterson as Allan Bird. He’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast, but it’s Paterson’s quiet approach that sells the movie and the small moments, such as his transformation in the recording booth from Allan to his on-air persona, Dicky, that brings the character depth. The film features several sequences of Bird driving silently around Glasgow and each one is made interesting by Paterson’s performance. Credit also goes to Forsyth for trusting Paterson in these moments as well as for his soundtrack choices, which fit the character, tone, and time perfectly.

Forsyth is perhaps best known for his excellent Local Hero, which immediately precedes this film in his catalogue, and Paterson is probably only known to Americans who are fans of British television (Little Dorrit, Doctor Who, and Law and Order: UK, among others), but for both Bills, this is a strong achievement that deserves to remain in the consciousness of cinephiles. For some reason, Comfort and Joy is not currently available on DVD, but those with long memories, or access to VHS collections, should revisit it. (Universal Pictures, the US distributor, should get on this and fix it, by the way.) In a season of loud, brash films, this is an unassuming, simple tale that many will not have seen and that most who seek it out will enjoy.

How Christmassy is it?

While not over the top with its seasonal setting, Christmas is strongly felt throughout the film, which depicts the melancholy that can set in when one is alone over the holiday. On the Christmas film scale (1=Brazil, 5=A Christmas Story), this gets a 4.

You May Like It If…

You like Bill Paterson, Bill Forsyth, or introspective takes on Christmas.

Other observations:

Keep an eye out for underplayed sight gags, such as an employee making a batch of ice cream in the background by adding powder to water while Mr. Cool goes on to Dicky about the quality of his ice cream.

Final thoughts:

While not life-changing, Comfort and Joy is a quiet, introspective, fun film, and a nice change of pace from broader seasonal fare.

Kate Kulzick

5 Comments
  1. TomL says

    I saw this film in 1986 and instantly became a Bill Forsyth fan. Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, Housekeeping are all good, and I even recall hunting down VHS rentals of That Sinking Feeling and Breaking In back then. Of all the Forsyth films, however, Comfort and Joy charmed me the most. I suspect it’s due to the amazing complicated mess that Dicky’s life so suddenly becomes. I really do yearn for the day when I can get C&J on DVD. I am dismayed that this gem has not yet been made available to a whole new generation of yet-to-be fans. Great pick!

  2. Kate Kulzick says

    Bill- Thanks! I still haven’t seen Gregory’s Girl, but I definitely want to now.

    pemory- That’s great to hear- please come back and let us know what you thought!

  3. pemory says

    Just purchased and received a relatively inexpensive VHS copy. Planning to watch it tonight for the first time, so many thanks for the thoughtful, reflective review. And for further whetting my appetite for this film!

  4. Ricky says

    I’ve never seen this, so it’s now at the top of my list of films to see this holiday season.

  5. Bill Mesce says

    Kate —

    Great to see somebody remember this one. I became a Forsythe fan after LOCAL HERO, looking up older films (the delightful teen romance GREGORY’S GIRL), and tracking his follow-ups (like C&J). After HERO, I thought he was on the verge of a career breakout, but I think American audiences typically had a problem getting his tremendously underplayed humor mixed with an almost matter-of-fact whimsy (“Hey, so was she a mermaid or what?”). Nice pick!

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