Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough) is a department store Santa with a difference – he’s the real thing. Due to some ill-tempered rivalry between competing stores and some deliberate provocation, he winds up in court on trumped-up assault charges, leading to a consideration by the judge as to whether he really is Father Christmas or not. Six year old Susan (Mara Wilson) desperately wants to believe, but her mother Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins) has become weary and cynical, while Dorey’s partner Bryan (Dylan McDermott) defends Kris Kringle in court. Is he just an old, confused man, or is he really real?
Remade from the 1947 film of the same name, Miracle is a deliberate and enthralling throw-back. Whereas there could have been lashings of post-modern irony, cynicism and winks to the audience, instead this is played straight as a die. As Kris Kringle, Attenborough is perfectly cast; innocent, guileless, warm, affectionate and a dab-hand at sign-language in one of the all-time great “make a grown man cry every time” scenes. Yes, Wilson is too cute to be true as Susan, but her presence is absolutely essential, her arc towards heartfelt, unwavering belief the fulcrum of all that happens around her.
McDermott is excellent as the good-hearted and faith-filled attorney, trying to coax out of Perkins’ Dorey some of the wonder and innocence about Christmas that she seems to have lost on the way. Neither of them are mere ciphers, enjoying fleshed out characterisation and story-lines that have room to breathe, with convincing developments towards that wonderful finale.
As the court case that sits at the core of the story builds towards its conclusion, it seems unthinkable that the outcome would be anything other than what by that stage you are desperately hoping for and as one by one the citizens of Manhattan declare that they believe, you may find that something gets in your eye with alarming predictability.
In many ways, Miracle is the summation of all that Christmas movies are and should be. Commercialisation is held up for ridicule and the cold-hearted manager of the “bad” department store is consistently presented in the negative. Hope, wonder and belief are offered up as praiseworthy traits and rewarded with honour. The unashamed good nature of Kris Kringle is presented as an ideal and something to which we all ought to aspire and happy endings are shown to not merely be the stuff of fairy tales. Yes, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas films and yes, Gremlins can be a welcome antidote to the sometimes lazy Christmas-themed films that are presented to us at this time of year. But Miracle on 34th Street is where it is at, alongside It’s a Wonderful Life as a perfect representation of all that Christmas should mean.
Watch it, feel free to blub a bit* and get yourself in the mood for the most wonderful time of the year.
* or in my case, a lot