Auld Lang Syne

rex2 5 Auld Lang SyneHow About You
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Jean Pasley
Directed by Anthony Byrne
Starring Hayley Atwill, Orla Brady, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Fricker, Imelda Staunton, Joss Ackland

How About You is a confection about Christmas in a senior citizen’s home in Ireland that has fallen on hard times. The feisty residents are impossible, the health department is threatening foreclosure, the staff has deserted the place like rats on the Titanic, and a young girl named Ellie (Hayley Atwill, who starred last year in Woody Allen’s ill-fated Cassandra’s Dream) finds herself left in charge while her unhappy, pragmatic older sister, Kate (Gate Theatre alumnus Orla Brady), who runs the place, eschews the responsibility and takes a week off to visit their ailing mother. It’s Christmas week, when most of the regulars are away spending time with relatives, and Ellie is left to supervise the four “hard-core” troublemakers left behind because nobody will take them in. You soon discover why.

Naïve and inexperienced, Ellie is popular because she goes the extra mile, even baking hash cookies for a former adventuress with cancer. But the four old-timers bordering on Alzheimer’s she has to guide through Christmas week would try the patience of people with beards and sandals whom you only read about in the Old Testament. There is Georgia (Vanessa Redgrave), an irascible, foul-mouthed former actress who breaks the rules, chain-smoking and drinking martinis and wandering off to the local pub to sing cabaret songs. There are the two pool-playing spinster sisters, Heather (Brenda Fricker) and Hazel (Imelda Staunton). And finally, there’s the crabby old retired judge and recovering alcoholic (Joss Ackland) whose sarcasm could wither a cactus. When Ellie’s patience wears out, she tries something new, and through her ruthless lack of diplomacy, forces her charges to confront the truth about themselves and each other. Finally, she demands they leave the protective confines of their small world and do the Christmas dinner shopping as a group project. Together, they get to know each other as friends, revealing themselves to be a great deal more than annoying eccentrics. They even manage to win over the social worker who threatens to revoke their license and close them down by inviting him to their home-cooked Christmas dinner. By the time Kate returns expecting to find the home in shambles, everything has changed, the residents have all learned valuable lessons in tolerance, acceptance and friendship, and everyone is singing the title song with sincere but tone-deaf gusto.

Based on a short story by the great Irish writer Maeve Binchy, the film has structure, resonance and a welcome respect for well-delineated characters, beautifully observed by a distinguished cast. It’s all very sweet but also, one must admit, regrettably inconsequential. As a holiday season chestnut, How About You is a mere filbert.

rreed@observer.com