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London Film Festival 2023: The Holdovers review – A witty new Christmas classic in the making

The Christmas season has always allowed for a specific kind of sentimentality that might be less excusable during the rest of the year, so it’s appropriate then that two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne’s latest film The Holdovers is both festive and perhaps his most sentimental yet.

Set during the outset of the festive break, we follow teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who’s given the seemingly unfortunate task of staying on the campus of private boys’ school Barton Academy to look after the neglected students unable to return home for the holidays. Paul is a stubborn and very principled educator, unwilling to bend to the rich parents who use wealth to rescue their sons from any predicament, even if it puts his future at the school under doubt. This determination makes for a genius match-up against student Angus (Dominic Sessa) and company. This central dynamic between Paul and Angus is where the film’s soul truly lies. 

It goes without saying, then, that a lot rests on the shoulders of its leads. Thankfully, both are up to the challenge. As with his Sideways (his previous collaboration with the director), Giamatti channels an inner melancholia that never overwhelms the performance. Bubbling slowly under the surface it gives just enough room to build your sympathies but never so much as to be overly dramatic. Newcomer Dominic Sessa is also one to look out for, easily matching the long-time actor, and surely destined to go onto become a force to be reckoned with.

The film also benefits hugely from a great utilisation of time and place. Christmas is already a supremely comforting time of the year, but paired with both an early 70s period setting and a snow-sprinkled private school campus, they make for an intoxicating combination that is sure to have people returning to the film again and again during the months of December. It begs the question, why on earth is it being released here in the UK in January?

As with his previous films, though, Payne’s films really excel in their screenplay. The rapid-fire dialogue and nuanced takes towards tough subjects are always what’s drawn me to his work, and thankfully, it’s just as on form here. Snappy back-and-forths really do make for an entertaining watch, and in this weird comedy dry spell we seem to be in at the moment, it felt very much like a breath of fresh air.

It’s perhaps not as narratively air-tight as his best work, with a noticeable shift towards mawkishness in its climax, something which I felt was handled far more gently in The Descendants (still my favourite Payne film). But ’tis the season I suppose, and in the grand scheme of films set during the festive period, this is pretty down-to-earth.

Will it be a new festive favourite? Only time will tell, but I’d definitely watch this space.

London Film Festival 2023: The Holdovers review – A witty new Christmas classic in the making

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