An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

On DVD: 
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Running Time: 
90 minutes

At first blush An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving seems to be yet another sappy holiday television movie, but is actually quite a bit more.  Allegedly based on Louisa May Alcott’s short story, it shares only character names and the 19th century New Hampshire setting with its source material.  The story was a sweet tale of children creating an inedible but joyous Thanksgiving feast for their parents’ return from visiting an ill relative, but the Hallmark movie focuses on mother-daughter tension, class differences, and survival. 

Mary Bassett is recently widowed and she and her three children are facing their first Thanksgiving alone.  It is post-Civil War New Hampshire and money is more than tight, so a holiday feast is out of the question and Mary says they will make do with normal, if meager, food and a festive tablecloth they can create from scraps of fabric.  Solomon, the young son, holds fast to the idea that there will somehow be a traditional Thanksgiving because he thinks that will show everything will be okay.  Middle child Mathilda is calmly accepting, but oldest daughter Tally, an aspiring writer, sends a letter to her wealthy and estranged grandmother, recently stumbled upon by her neighbor, claiming her father has been kidnapped by gypsies and that the family has been reduced to living like wild animals.  The grandmother soon arrives, turning lives and long-held views on their heads.

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving features some stellar acting.  Tatiana Maslany is luminous as Tilly Bassett (who could just as easily have been named Jo March), her simmering resentment and yearning for more always close to the surface.  Gage Munroe is sweet as the vulnerable Solomon and Vivian Endicott Douglas gives depth to what could have been a clichéd middle child role.  As strong and good-hearted Mary, Helene Joy is solid, playing both the serene and beatific mother and conflicted and bitter daughter well.  As for Jacqueline Bisset as Isabella, well, she steals the show.  Her gravitas grounds the film and the mirth lurking around the corners of her mouth tempers her arrogance appealingly.  Her chemistry with every member of the cast is pitch-perfect and she simply shines in every scene.

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving is a quiet film with a matter-of-fact portrayal of both the harshness of 19th century life and class tension.  It does drag a bit in places, and a couple of scenes such as Tally praying to Lord Byron do not quite ring true, but overall screenwriter Shelley Evans and director Graeme Campbell have created a refreshing and moving film.  The crackling scene where Mary reveals-publically-that Isabella was poor before sleeping with a rich old man and giving birth to Mary to legitimize the marriage was both unexpected and well-played.  I was especially impressed with the ending because just when I thought it was slipping into predictable cliché, it twisted slightly and became something much more satisfying.

The only extra is a surprisingly thorough making-of mini-documentary, “On Location,” which shows everything from how to find a period-correct turkey to how the actors fared learning the waltz.  There is a good amount of cast interviews and the wardrobe selection section was especially interesting.  The video is quite good with clean images and nuanced color, making it easy to enjoy the close attention clearly paid to period details.  Because they used a Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio mix, unusual for a television movie, the sound is excellent with crisp dialogue.

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving is a surprisingly forthright period piece that captures the complexities of family and is sentimental without being schmaltzy.  It avoids most family film pitfalls and left me truly touched.

Review by Michelle St. James