An Exploration of Love at Christmas: How ‘The Holiday’ Does It Best
With Christmas just around the corner, there has never been a better time to sing the praises of my favourite festive film, The Holiday. It isn’t the most realistic of Christmas movies, but at this time of year, that’s not what we’re looking for anyway. When we sit down with a cup of tea at the end of a day of baking cookies, wrapping gifts, and generally being merry, what we want is a film that’s going to give us that comfortable, warm feeling. In German, the word is gemütlichkeit — it doesn’t have a direct English translation, but it resembles the feeling one gets whilst sat next to the fire, surrounded by family and friends, feeling cozy and right at home. The Holiday is packed full of gorgeous Christmas decor in two separate but equally stunning destinations, with characters who feel like old friends — gemütlichkeit indeed.
In the film, London-based Iris (Kate Winslet) and LA-based Amanda (Cameron Diaz) are fresh from traumatic experiences in love: wedding reporter Iris learns, in front of all of her colleagues, that her ex-boyfriend (and co-worker!) is engaged to another woman; movie trailer maker Amanda shouts at her sleazy boyfriend until he confesses to sleeping with his much younger assistant. After kicking him out of her home, she attempts to feel sadness about her break-up, but not a single tear comes to her eye. Eventually she gives up on her (absent) feelings and begins to look for a faraway destination to escape her stressful life and the emptiness of her California mansion. Halfway across the world, Iris sulks all the way home from her work holiday party and begins to sob pathetically the moment she walks into her quaint cottage. Suddenly, her laptop pings—it’s Amanda, who has found the cottage on a home-exchange website and wants to know if they can, on quite short notice, switch homes (and lives) for the holidays.
You might be asking yourself: why wouldn’t Amanda or Iris want to spend the holidays with their family? This is a fair question, I suppose, if you have never in your life been questioned by a family member as to why you remain single. Amanda and Iris are women in their early thirties, a time by which modern women are expected to be married or to be at least very near to marriage. Perhaps the only thing that hurts nearly as much as the actual heartbreak is being questioned about the breaker of your heart in a crowded room of relatives. After my high school boyfriend dumped me, I was glad for maybe the first time since I’d moved to another country that I wouldn’t be spending Christmas with my extended family and therefore wouldn’t have to answer any questions about him. Iris and Amanda clearly don’t want to rehash their depressing circumstances with their families; they want to disappear into another place, hoping to remain as invisible as possible while they heal.
But this is a rom-com, so we know that men are coming along whether we like it or not. For Amanda, it is the ridiculously handsome, at-the-peak-of-his-beauty Jude Law, who portrays Iris’ brother Graham. Graham drunkenly stumbles into his sister’s cottage on Amanda’s first night; Amanda, feeling the excitement and spontaneity of being newly single, daringly goes in for the kiss and subsequently seduces Graham for the night. The next morning we sense her embarrassment and regret for having done something so out of character, but Graham puts her at ease by wearing very charming glasses and reassuring her that she’s not the only one who’s a bit of a mess.
Iris, on the other hand, encounters two men: her elderly, former-Hollywood-writer neighbour Arthur (Eli Wallach), and Miles, a friend of Amanda’s ex who writes film scores and is perfectly played by Jack Black. While Arthur helps Iris regain her confidence through friendly flattery and tough (but gentle) love, Miles is the love interest that almost isn’t – I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film, but by the time Iris realizes she likes him, he nearly slips away.
The Holiday has plot holes and inconsistencies, I won’t deny it. It is entirely unrealistic (although not impossible) that two women would ever switch houses that quickly without a deeper probe into one another to make sure that they weren’t being catfished by an internet creep. Is ‘movie-trailer-maker’ even a real job? How is Iris’s commute home from London so seemingly easy and non-crowded? Does a cottage like hers even exist?! (I hate to be the one to tell you this, but no, that cottage does not exist.) In one scene, Amanda drives herself to the local village and then drinks half a bottle of wine in the shop. Are we to assume she drove herself home drunk? I disagree with this criticism, but many find it impossible that Jack Black and Kate Winslet would ever end up together (they’re playing characters, people!). Last but not least, Jude Law is so deliciously beautiful in this film, but we know it is genuinely impossible that any British man looks remotely like that.
Regardless of its imperfections, there really is no other film that conveys the comfort, warmth, and happiness of the Christmas season quite like The Holiday. When I consulted Twitter for opinions on the film, the most popular praise was that The Holiday explores all types of relationships, both romantic and unromantic, that remind us that the cliche is true: love is the most important thing about Christmas. The emotions of the women, whether they have too many or too few, certainly play a large role in the plot. But we are never made to feel that one way is better than the other—an incredibly rare notion in the portrayal of women onscreen. The different types of love that Iris and Amanda encounter—romantic love, love in friendship, self-love—this is what makes The Holiday wonderful.
Iris is overemotional, in love with a man who, in her words, does not and will not love her back. But her interactions with both Arthur and Miles are not spoiled by her heartbreak; rather, they are strengthened. Arthur reminds Iris on countless occasions just how valuable she is and that she should be the ‘leading lady of her own life,’ and when Miles encounters heartbreak of his own, Iris is able to support and strengthen him in the way Arthur did for her. It is this branching out that gives Iris the spark in her life she lost long ago to an unrequited love; she is emotionally reborn through her new relationships and is able to realise her own self-worth.
Amanda appears emotionally frozen, scarred by the breakup of her parents and terrified to commit herself to anyone other than sleaze balls like her ex-boyfriend. Graham is also insecure and fearful for his own reasons (again, I won’t spoil the plot), but he and Amanda face their anxieties together, allowing their initial pull to one another to guide them as they decipher what it means to be a parent and as they accept new versions of what a family looks like.
The Holiday is the ultimate feel-good film to be sure, but it is the deeper explorations and representations of love, friendship, and family to which I will always return. A story of two women who refuse against all odds to allow their vulnerabilities get the best of them and instead experience growth and renewed self-love? That’s all I want for Christmas.