We could all do with some extra Christmas cheer this year, and who better to provide it then a two-bit criminal pretending to be Santa? Lots of people, of course, but the good folk on a drought-stricken farm in the warm, playful, funny festive film A Sunburnt Christmas understand more than most that beggars can’t be choosers. They’ll take what they can get – which happens to be an on-the-run crook named Daryl who knows a big bag of stolen cash is buried somewhere on their property, and recruits the family’s two youngest kids – Daisy (Lena Nankivell) and Tom (Eadan McGuinness) – to help him find it by maintaining the ruse that he is Santa Claus.
The film is a Stan original and the feature directorial debut of Christiaan Van Vuuren, who honed his comedy skills on series such as Soul Mates and Squinters (directing several episodes of each) and is one of the ultra satirically woke Bondi Hipsters (whose amusing new half-hour spin-off on Stan, Dom and Adrian 2020, landed on the weekend). Written by Elliot Vella, Gretel Vella and Timothy Walke, A Sunburnt Christmas is wacky and sweet in a backhanded way, with a plot spearheaded by a costumed rascal bringing excitement to an otherwise uneventful, quintessentially Australian setting.
So, it’s a cross between Bad Santa and the 1987 Australian movie Bushfire Moon (also known as Miracle Down Under). In the former, Billy Bob Thornton plays a crotchety, ciggie-smoking, booze-guzzling, potty-mouthed department store Santa who suffers through all the ho ho ho and kids-on-knee stuff in order to rob the stores after hours. And in the latter, a Disney-fied family movie, Bud Tingwell plays a bushy-bearded criminal a young boy mistakes for being Father Christmas when he comes to visit another drought-stricken community. The mischief-making drifter, whose cheeks are red from sunburn, goes along with it while he plots to get his hands on a large sum of cash he believes is owed to him.
In Van Vuuren’s film, the shifty pseudo-Saint Nick is played by Daniel Henshall, who is perhaps one or two performances away from being crowned the greatest dodgiest bloke in 21st-century Australian movies – most notably for his brilliant portrayals in Snowtown and Acute Misfortune. The first act of A Sunburnt Christmas extracts mileage from the tension between weary adult and naive youth – an evergreen comedy dynamic, with too many examples of it being put to good use to name, though the work of WC Fields comes to mind, who famously responded to the line “Do you like children?” with “I do if they’re properly cooked.”
In the first scene, Daryl is in a hospital bed, badly wounded, being whisked into the emergency department. Instead of simply showing him moved from point A to point B, Van Vuuren and editor Denise Haratzis mix up the shots – cutting to behind the bed, next to the bed and above and beneath the bed. This builds from the outset a jive and momentum, setting a tone and visual flavour that reflects the playfulness of the script. Cinematographer Dylan River (son of the great director Warwick Thornton) shoots with a rich but playful look, and, crucially, Van Vuuren brings the camera in on the joke. It doesn’t just capture the mise-en-scène; it explores the space for comedic potential.
Once left alone in the hospital room, Daryl lunges to his feet and gets an idea on how to escape the building in plain sight. Creating a sense of urgency is the weirdly evangelical thug Dingo (Sullivan Stapleton) who is hot on his trail; the screenwriters easily up the stakes by wheeling him into the spotlight. Daryl heads to Hattersley Homestead, which, like the tinder-dry land in Bushfire Moon and various properties in the upcoming thriller The Dry, is a farm turned more or less useless due to ongoing drought.
It is in effect run by 15-year-old Hazel (Tatiana Goode), Daisy and Tom’s older sister. Their mum Fiona (Ling Cooper Tang) is physically present but mentally somewhere else, with a tendency to stare absently into the distance. Early in the piece a man from the bank is on the property, delivering the hard word about a looming foreclosure: that old “you’ll lose your home without a sudden injection of cash” chestnut. By now you’ve probably guessed where this might be heading: the nogoodnik who may just be inspired by the kids to change his ways, and the down-on-their-luck family who may just catch a break.
At the peak of its powers, the film’s merging of written humour with editing and cinematography – never relying on just the script, or just the performances, to land a gag – carries an almost Edgar Wright-esque twang, with no shortage of attitude and sass. Some of that attitude dips a little as the film heads into a final stretch, getting into the cuddlier and heartier stuff, though by that point Van Vuuren et al have well and truly won us over. This spirited and charming film has only been out for a few days and I’ve seen it twice already: it’s thoroughly entertaining, very ’strayan viewing for a holly jolly holiday in our not-so-winter wonderland. A Christmas miracle!
• A Sunburnt Christmas is showing now on Stan