Despite its smattering of shortcomings, “A Castle For Christmas” is gently disarming, heartening, holiday-themed escapism that’s as satisfying as a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night. Director Mary Lambert’s romcom is centered on a divorcée who, after a public meltdown, buys a castle in Scotland, meets a dreamy duke and regains her creative vitality. Trading cloying for cute, treacly for tolerable, and caustic for comforting, its sincere, aspirational sentiments about it never being too late to write your own second chapter feel genuinely meaningful, making up for its struggles to pay off unrequited setups.
Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) is a successful romcom novelist, having released a dozen books in the popular “Emma Gale” series. However, the celebrated author has recently come under fire by her fans since choosing to kill off her protagonist’s love interest — a creative decision motivated by her own bitter divorce after her husband left her for another woman. An on-air breakdown on “The Drew Barrymore Show” causes her to rethink her creative pursuits and hightail it to Dun Dunbar, a tiny town in Scotland where lies the castle in which her father was raised. Her dad, the son of the groundskeeper, had a penchant for telling romanticized stories about his childhood, inspiring her future endeavors as a writer. She hopes that this trip will allow her to reconnect with her family history and work in anonymity. But when Sophie arrives, she’s greeted by many unexpected surprises.
Not only do the townsfolk recognize Sophie and unwaveringly support her work, but she discovers that the palatial palace from her dad’s youth is for sale. The only problem is that obstinate owner Myles (Cary Elwes), an adversarial, cash-strapped duke, is reticent to hand over the keys. He finagles a dastardly deal: a 90-day escrow that allows her to take immediate ownership provided he continues to live there with her during that time and, if she backs out, his ownership will be reinstated. The pair strike an agreement, but Myles is convinced he can get the new tenant to quickly vacate the premises. He puts her up in a dank, dilapidated room and overwhelms her with threats of property maintenance issues like horrible heating, poor plumbing and shoddy electrical work (which, incidentally, are things we never see become actual problems). Yet his plan to drive her away inevitably brings them closer together.
Lambert, along with screenwriters Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson, instills the picture with a heap ton of heart, charm and ebullience. Genre tropes are employed only when necessary. Sophie and Myles’ meet-cute is adorably instigated by Myles’ overly excited dog Hamish (played by Barley, a total ham). Internal conflicts are placed at the forefront when it comes to character motivation, which is never cloudy. Their foreseeable argument and third act “chase to win her back” are well-earned. While their verbal sparring isn’t quite on par with other snappy screwball comedies, the pair engage in humorous, healthy repartee that stars Elwes and Shields nimbly negotiate.
Those in Sophie’s inner circle — her knitter’s club — are allowed impactful arcs subtly woven into the film’s fabric. Though gregarious group leader Helen (Tina Gray) remains relatively unchanged, Angus (Stephen Oswald) is forced to come to terms with lingering grief after the death of his husband. Innkeeper Maisie’s (Andi Osho) journey involves forgiving former beau Thomas (Lee Ross), while Rhona’s (Eilidh Loan) involves leaning into her free-spirited side.
The filmmakers keep the genre-patented shenanigans and hijinks to a bare minimum, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a strategy that grounds the fantasy elements in reality while simultaneously restraining some of the liveliness those silly situations bring. External conflicts are relatively muted. There’s little sense of pressing urgency or mounting adversity faced by our heroine when it comes to writing a creatively fulfilling novel, nor refurbishing the castle in time to reinstate the town’s traditional Christmas Eve ball and caretaker Myles’ impending departure.
Absent are montages of Sophie learning how to maintain the home and expansive grounds, which we’re told include a garden and a sustainable wind farm. Maybe she doesn’t need to since she has plenty of money to make troubles disappear. Even the looming threat of Sophie or Myles’s exes possibly mucking things up — which is broadly hinted at — fails to come to fruition. There’s also a scene spent at the inn checking in a random couple, who seem like they’re being set up as significant somebodies, but turn out to be nobodies as they’re never heard from again.
Still, the film’s benefits outweigh the blights. It’s refreshing to see a sweet love story revolving around a couple over the age of 50. Lambert brings an assured sense of introspection and nuance to the narrative while bestowing it with an endearing effervescence. With rootable interests and enlightened views on community, artistic integrity and regaining vibrancy in a world seeking to diminish it, this feature is a gift.