Joyeux Noel is not your great-grandfather's World War I movie. But just because Archduke Franz Ferdinand might roll over in his grave from the heart-tugging at play, it doesn't mean the film's ineffective--just that it's a different fit.
During World War I, there was at least one night devoid of bitter fighting and rampant bloodshed: Christmas Eve, 1914. On that night, British, French and German soldiers on the frontline cease fire. Most instrumental in the brief peace offering is Sprink (Benno Furmann), a renowned tenor who's ordered to report as a private in the war. When his singing partner and lover, a soprano named Anna (Diane Kruger), arranges for the two of them to sing together before a private and esteemed audience, Sprink is reluctant to be away from his comrades and fulfilling his responsibilities. So he and Anna attempt to lift the spirits, if only for a night, of the German soldiers in the trenches by performing for them. But their enemies can't help but hear the voices and the two risk gunfire by moving to a more central location for all soldiers to hear. Unthinkable magic ensues: weapons are dropped. But then morning comes.
Much like the global scope of World War I, the Joyeux Noel ("Merry Christmas") cast spans several nations--all European in this particular case. In Germany's corner are Furmann and Kruger (Troy, National Treasure). Furmann's performance is more compelling than Kruger's, but both suffer the untenable fates of lip-synching opera music; it is arrestingly atrocious, but such scenes are truly a case of "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" include them. For the French, there's Guillaume Canet, who gives a strong performance as a lieutenant who's deeply troubled internally as he awaits word on his pregnant wife's well being. And Brits Steven Robertson and Robin Laing, who play young brothers eager to join the war, both conjure up convincingly the calamitous nature of war in general, as does Gary Lewis, who plays their local priest.
Writer-director Christian Carion apparently takes his World War I movies with a side of sugar. Which will undoubtedly please some viewers weary of watching the rough stuff on the History Channel, while others might be put off by the sweet taste left in their mouths. Not that there isn't the "war is hell" intimation here--in fact, it could be argued that it is underscored even more by Carion's decision to interrupt battle scenes for song--but when all the sides mingle during the cease fire, the tone seems to go awry. Soccer games and pen pals amongst sworn enemies suggest Carion's sentimentality fraternized, too, and a "What's wrong with this picture?" vibe emerges. That's the only real hitch for the film, but it is a resounding one. Otherwise, Joyeux Noel is shot beautifully and stories intertwine seamlessly. And Carion is further praiseworthy for setting out to explore a different side of the War, even if it's more sappy than divisive.
Hollywood.com rates this film two and a half stars.