Some movie partnerships feel like they were made in heaven. And if their output isn’t prolific, no matter. It makes their collaborations even more special. Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti last worked together 20 years ago and the result was the much-loved Sideways, the film that carved out the director’s unique niche in modern cinema, as an acute observer of men facing personal crises.

Giamatti was a teacher, disappointed in life and with a liking for drink. In The Holdovers, he’s almost an older version of the same man – a pompous classical history teacher who’s hardly ever left the boarding school where he works. And he likes a drink or five. But Payne’s latest film is more than a Sideways partner piece. Here the teacher finds himself babysitting a clutch of students who have nowhere to go over Christmas and, when several of them grab the opportunity to spend the holidays elsewhere, he only has a smart but damaged student (Dominic Sessa) and the school’s cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), in mourning for her son, for company. Not that he enjoys being with other people …..

Like Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt and George Clooney in The Descendents, Hunham (Giamatti) is facing a crisis in late middle age. A lifetime spent within the academic walls of the boarding school has cut him off from the outside world and alienated him from people. But this time Payne also places the cook and the student at turning points in their lives. She’s full of sadness and anger as she tries to find her way through her grief at her son’s death in Vietnam, while he’s struggling to cope with the absence of his father and his mother’s recent re-marriage. None of them are equipped to deal with heartbreak, loneliness and crushing sorrow – but who is? Yet Payne, together with new screenwriter David Hemingson, gives the story his customary bittersweet tone, full of telling and pithy one-liners, sprinkled with an occasional tartness. Even better are the moments when they put dialogue to one side and let the camera home in on Giamatti’s expressions. They are small, cinematic gems.

Even the 1970s setting balances warmth with sadness. The Vietnam War casts a shadow over the entire film, from the tragic death of the cook’s son to lurking in the background on the TV or radio news. There’s just no getting away from it. The re-creation of the decade is beautifully done, from a predominantly brown colour palette to a soundtrack including Labi Siffre, Cat Stevens and Badfinger. For those that remember the era, it will envelope you in nostalgia, but never, ever sentiment.

As the film arrives in the UK, Giamatti’s performance is emerging as a serious rival to Cillian Murphy in the awards stakes. Whether he wins the Oscar or not, this is the performance of his career – the isolated teacher who’s given a brief taste of the outside world and decides he wants more, no matter how frightening it might be. Randolph is heartbreaking and inspiring as the grieving mother, while Sessa is impressive in his breakthrough role. In fact, all three are superb, as individuals and as a tight-knit ensemble. And, while it makes no sense that what is essentially a Christmas film arrives in this country in January, let’s celebrate that it’s here, it’s wonderful and that we have a new seasonal tradition to add to the list. This will be a Christmas classic for years to come.


In UK cinemas January 19th / Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa and Carrie Preston / Dir: Alexander Payne / Universal Pictures / 15 

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