One of Leo Tolstoy’s smaller works is Master and Man, a short story originally published in 1895. The story follows a wealthy landowner and a peasant on a business trek in the countryside that turns deadly when a blizzard overtakes them. Boxing Day is loosely based on that story, and marks the third time British filmmaker Bernard Rose has directed an adaptation of Tolstoy’s work. It’s an intimate rumination on class and what it means to do good.
Danny Huston plays Basil, and in this modernization of the tale, the landowner becomes a pompous real estate speculator who leaves his family on Christmas in order to take advantage of a new business opportunity in Denver. The peasant is now a chauffeur named Nick, played by Matthew Jacobs. As the pair drives around the area so that Basil can turn a buck buying and selling foreclosed properties, they debate ethics, religion, and class. Soon, they’re lost, which at first opens an opportunity for them to get to know one another better, but which becomes dangerous when their car lodges in a snow bank in the middle of nowhere.
Huston and Jacobs are both quite good, which is crucial, since this is essentially a two-man play. Huston embodies a chillingly amoral ruthlessness. In Basil, you can see the attitude that’s led to our current economic downturn: a razor-focused pursuit of the bottom line, with no regard for the well being of others. In an early scene, he smooth-talks an old woman into giving him personal information on the members of her church. He’s a monster wearing a charming suit. And while Nick is a compassionate, socially conscious man, he’s shaded with interesting nuances. He’s a recovering alcoholic with a history of letting down the people he loves. In all conventional perspectives, Nick is far less respectful than Basil. But the crucial difference between the two is that Nick is haunted by how he’s hurt people, while Basil has a heart of stone.
The film lives on the friction and chemistry between these polar opposites. It’s like My Dinner with Andre, on the road and with considerably more animosity between the debating parties. Sometimes the story veers aimlessly off-course like a car fishtailing on an icy road, and it becomes a minor chore to sit through. Anyone wary of movies that are mostly talk will not find much to like here. But watching the subtle shift in Huston’s performance as Basil is almost unwillingly dragged towards something like empathy is fascinating. And it culminates in a beautiful act that perfectly encapsulates Tolstoy’s brand of humanism.
Boxing Day sometimes strays from its path, a symptom of expanding a brief story into a feature-length film. It might have worked better as a short. As it is, though, it’s a solid piece of work, compelling enough to be worth a look.