I Heard the Bells (2022)

8 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For a debut feature film from a well-known theatre company (in this case, Sight & Sound Theatres, a faith-based company best known for huge-scale Bible-story productions), “I Heard the Bells” could have fooled me into thinking this was their fifth or tenth film. But seeing as how their stage productions are well-regarded for their outstanding (and expensive) resources, I shouldn’t be surprised by the grand theatrics thrown onto the screen (and countered toward the audience as a result–that’s a compliment, by the way) by director/co-writer Joshua Enck and his cast & crew (most of which have worked with Enck on many a S&S show).

Go figure, passionate artists put their heart and soul into a production and all the extra expenses go into something worthwhile. I’ll be intrigued to see other films from this same company.

Set in the early 1860s (and let me take a moment to mention the production & costume design to show the era are beautifully detailed), “I Heard the Bells” tells the story of the origin of the well-known poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s a story of a man who had his faith and his passion challenged before ultimately embracing both.

We begin with a warm, welcoming first act that may as well have been directed as part of a S&S stage show, as Longfellow (very well-played with vigor by Stephen Atherholt) celebrates Christmas 1860 with his loving wife Fanny (Rachel Day Hughes) and his five adoring children. After a wonderful moment of a family’s holiday gathering do we get something you don’t often succeed at achieving live on stage: a subtle change of emotions, well-suited for film and the silver screen, as we see the real human characters behind the theatrics. This is important to realize, especially when, as the story continues, we see this family is in for heavy emotional drama that threatens to tear them apart.

We learn that Longfellow has lost a daughter in the past (and will not allow his teenage son, Charley [Jonathan Blair], to enlist in the Union Army, lest he risk losing him too)–thus, we know this family has encountered tragedy already. How a family behaves in the face of tragedy is foundation for intriguing storytelling (and effective for parables to assist in real-life scenarios as well–most of them are based on real-life scenarios)–having not known the Longfellows’ story, I was all the more invested in how this family would adjust when something even more devastating occurs, thus causing Longfellow to lose all interest in writing, Charley to ultimately enlist and go to war, and then…well, I shouldn’t say any more, but seeing as this all results in an uplifting Christmas carol, you shouldn’t expect this film to end any way other than with a positive message.

And “I Heard the Bells” earns its resolution too. Because the filmmaking, acting, and time-period feel are all so effective and wonderfully-done, nothing feels too pat (which is often the downfall of many a faith-based production). This is a film made by people who are, yes, passionate about their beliefs but, most importantly, know how to tell a good story and keep an audience invested. They also give us a clear portrait of this poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his complicated feelings towards his own work, despite the positive impact it has on people–we learn that he was one of the best-known abolitionists of the time, writing poems to help free slaves of the South, thus possibly igniting his son’s drive in fighting for a cause; but we also get the feeling that he wishes he could do more. As he’ll come to learn, the right amount of carefully chosen words can make a great (and positive) impact on people.

(We also see more of that positive impact in a comedic moment late in the film, when Charley recites a poem to his fellow soldiers and a local bumpkin who would like to read more poetry.)

The cinematography from Steve Buckwalter is outstanding as well–an opening tracking one-shot that enters from the sky into a hole in the roof of a dilapidated church (where the steeple should be) where we see a dramatic image that speaks volumes for what we’re about to see set it up for me that this is a film made by people with all the resources and all the money (and they even built that church specifically for the film, from scratch!) put into something ultimately worth our viewing pleasure.

“We need poets to change the world,” Fanny tells his beloved husband Henry. “Not politicians.” That line of dialogue is essentially the thesis for the entire film. And thankfully, there’s no political agenda to tell us what we should feel in “I Heard the Bells”–simply a poetic one that shows us what we could. “I Heard the Bells” delivers the meaning of Christmas to those who might lose sight of it, and it’s a moving film that deeply reminded me of it.


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