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This year’s most dazzling festive film harks back to Santa’s childhood

One night, while hesitating to go to bed as children like to do, writer Matt Haig’s son asked him a question that would lead first to a bestselling children’s book and now a feature film starring some of the best-known British actors in the world. main role.

“Daddy, was Santa ever a boy?” was the question Lucas, then seven, asked.

Matt wrote a memoir about his depression at the time, Reasons To Stay Alive, and considered his son’s question as an escape from the much more difficult subject of his own mental health. “I had no intention of writing a children’s book at all,” he recalls. “But I wanted to write about something completely different than depression and I’m really glad I did.”

The book, A Boy Called Christmas, was an instant hit in 2015 and has now been transformed into a beautifully festive tale dripping with snow, elves and reindeer starring Dame Maggie Smith, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. The story begins in the present when Aunt Ruth (Dame Maggie) starts babysitting three children who have recently lost their mother.

Matt Haig's hit book A Boy Called Christmas has been made into a festive film starring Dame Maggie Smith, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent.  Pictured: Henry Lawfull as Nikolas

Matt Haig’s hit book A Boy Called Christmas has been made into a festive film starring Dame Maggie Smith, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. Pictured: Henry Lawfull as Nikolas

She tells them an enchanting story about the time before Santa Claus and we are transported to a magical land.

A boy named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) lives in a frozen forest with his woodcutter, father Joel (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman). His mother died years before, but he fondly remembers the stories she told about the time she lived in a mysterious place called Elfhelm, full of happy elves.

One day, the king (Jim Broadbent) summons all his subjects and asks them to go and find something that will revive hope and happiness in his abandoned kingdom. Nikolas’ father goes in search of Elfhelm and leaves the boy in the care of his annoying Aunt Carlotta (Kristen Wiig).

She treats him terribly, so he escapes to try and find Elfhelm alone, accompanied only by his pet mouse Miika who, it turns out, can talk (and he sounds a lot like Stephen Merchant).

With the help of a magical reindeer, Nikolas finds the fairy village and befriends the elves Father Topo (Toby Jones) and Little Noosh (Indica Watson). But this village has also been hit by disaster, it is now under the dictatorial rule of Elfhelm leader Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins) and is overrun with misery. Nikolas’ challenge now is to make the people of both countries happy.

“One of the things I really liked about it was the fact that it was a Christmas movie, but not the standard Christmas movie story,” says Jim Broadbent. ‘It also brings in all kinds of other elements, in an imaginative way.’

Director Gil Kenan imposed strict rules to prevent the film from becoming too similar to other Christmas movies.  Pictured: Toby Jones and Indica Watson as fairies

Director Gil Kenan imposed strict rules to prevent the film from becoming too similar to other Christmas movies.  Pictured: Toby Jones and Indica Watson as fairies

Director Gil Kenan imposed strict rules to prevent the film from becoming too similar to other Christmas movies. Pictured: Toby Jones and Indica Watson as fairies

In fact, it is so different from other Christmas stories that there is no mention of the birth of Christ at all. “In a way, it’s a secular Christmas fantasy,” Matt says. “It’s full of hope and wonder—and that sense of excitement you get from Christmas.

“It’s a story about coming out of the darkness that has taken on a new meaning after the years we’ve been through. Stories are things we turn to for comfort, nourishment and understanding, and I hope it’s an exciting and fun story too. I love Christmas movies and this feels like a Christmas wish coming true to me.’

Matt’s son Lucas, now 13, has a cameo in the film, in a scene set in an Elf schoolroom, as does his younger sister Pearl, 12. “I was asked if I wanted to do a cameo too, but I thought no one would. interested in seeing midlife existential crisis elf,” jokes Matt, 46.

It’s a Christmas fantasy full of hope, wonder and excitement

The film is inspired by Scandinavian myths about trolls and the like, and director Gil Kenan has strict rules in place to keep it from looking too much like other Christmas movies. No green and red were allowed to sit side by side, no striped socks, and no bells on hats or shoes.

Costume designer Ruth Myers loved the chance to try something completely new in the land of the elves this Christmas.

“We did research on the Inuit and the tribes that lived in Scandinavia and they all have a lot in common in terms of a mix of leather, embroidery and very bright colors,” she says. “But because it was fantasy, I could also put my own spin on it.”

Henry Lawfull, whose only previous role had been a small part in the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables, said the film’s message is that “there is always light at the end of the tunnel.” Pictured: Henry as Nikolas with his magical reindeer

Ruth and her team of 30 created hundreds of outfits for the film, with a “magic cobbler” producing at least 250 pairs of leather boots for the production. Up to 20 different versions of each costume were made for the main cast, which had to be prepared for all weather conditions.

Some of the filming took place in Lapland, but most of it was shot in a film studio in Prague, where an entire Elf Village was created.

“I felt like Charlie won the gold ticket and entered Willy Wonka’s factory when I saw what they had made,” Matt says. “It was unbelievable.”

Production designer Gary Williamson and his team spent four months handcrafting the village from wood, based in part on Scandinavian homes. “We made about twenty houses, plus windmills, a huge hall, a toy store and a prison where a troll was held.”

Londoner Henry Lawfull, whose only previous role had been a small part in the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables, was chosen as the special child after producers fell in love with his angelic eyes and red hair during a massive search for their lead actor.

Now 15, he says it feels like the story has a special resonance after the pandemic. “I think there is a message that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. As bad as it is, there is hope.’

A Boy Called Christmas opens in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from Friday.

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