If you’re a white American rom-com heroine of a Certain Age ™ whose life has gone all topsy turvy, chances are good that you’ll end up in Scotland with a down-on-his-luck-Duke, his scrappy dog, and his sagging castle (not a euphemism). I mean, Scotland must test off-the-charts with viewers over forty because I feel like I’ve watched a multitude of movies with pretty much the exact same plot as A Castle for Christmas (minus the Christmas). Though the only one I can currently think of is Then Came You with Kathie Lee Gifford and Craig Ferguson, and I’m not even sure he was a duke. (If only there were an ultra powerful search engine that could help me.)
Before we dig into this not-so-meaty movie, there are a few things you should know: 1) It’s only a holiday movie in the loosest sense. Christmas is kind of a deadline and crammed in at the end, but the entire universe does not depend on a happy Christmas being had by all. Whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent depends entirely on your perspective. 2) Between the scattershot soundtrack, the often murky timeline, the unexpected and unexplained appearance of characters from another rom-com Netflix universe, and a plot that has more holes than a leaky castle roof, the movie might be better approached as a series of interconnected one-act plays than a cohesive rom-com romp. 3) I am 1000% in support of women over fifty being cast in romantic leads (please, if there could be more women of color in those roles, though), so if anyone reading this thinks, Ah yes, she agrees with me that this lady is too old to be sexy, you’ve most certainly stumbled into the wrong neck of the internet. Please, kindly show yourself out.
With those caveats in mind, and your expectations appropriately lowered, this is not a totally terrible movie: The leads are pleasant enough, the supporting cast is expectedly quirky, and the scenery is, well, Scottish.
Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) is the wildly popular author of many romance novels. Or was wildly popular until she killed off the male protagonist in her last book. Now there are rabid fans protesting outside her appearance on the Drew Barrymore show. Did her choice to kill him have anything to do with the fact that Sophie got divorced last year? She insists it didn’t and quite frankly there’s not enough to her character or the plot for it to really matter.
What does matter is that Sophie is at loose ends. She’s supposed to be writing. Something that her agent and best friend (Desiree Burch) reminds her of in no uncertain terms. (Her agent/best friend is also a Black woman who only exists to push and support Sophie. So there’s that.) Obviously, Sophie is not going to buckle down and write. No, she’s going to call her daughter and wax nostalgic about why she became a writer in the first place. Her father, who was a barber in New York, used to tell her colorful stories of growing up on the grounds of Castle Dun Dunbar in Scotland where his father worked as a groundskeeper. One day Sophie’s father even snuck inside to carve his name on a door—just to show that he had been there—but he was caught, his father fired, and the whole family moved to New York. This is presented as a bittersweet story, but it kind of feels like a villain’s origin story: Outcast from his native Scotland, he vowed to return and carve his name into the soul of every mortal descendant of… You get the picture. But this is not that type of movie, so it’s just a way to get Sophie to end up poking around that castle. So instead of writing another book with characters she’s grown to absolutely loathe (which I respect), Sophie packs a bag and heads off for the wee village of Dunbar. Population 153.
Now, I want to make sure you’re sitting down for this next part because things are going to get pretty shocking. Sophie arrives in the village to find that it is darling. Imagine that? I would have fully expected it to be overrun with chain stores. When she gets out of the taxi, a man (Cary Elwes), wearing the heck out of an olive jumpsuit, is fixing the sign outside the inn. As he turns to look at her, a dog comes barreling around the corner of the building, crashing into Sophie, spinning her around, and pushing her into his arms. They end up holding onto each other, staring into each other’s eyes, gasping for breath. To be perfectly candid, it’s way too much way too fast. It’s like someone saying I love you on the second date. A lingering glance would have been MORE than enough here. They sputter some things at each other and move on. Though it’s clearly not the last time they’ll meet.
Once she’s checked in, Sophie grabs a bike and heads straight for Dun Dunbar castle while some plucky, but not-quite-right music plays, and you’ll never guess who just happens to be there!! It’s the same guy in the jumpsuit, who offers to give her a tour. Why? Because he has the hots for her, obviously. Parts of the castle are very beautiful, but there are enough asides about the gift shop, repairs, and booking weddings that it’s clear Castle Dun Dunbar has a serious cash flow problem. While on the tour the dog, whose name is Hamish (Barley), shows up again and really wants to be Sophie’s friend. A HUGE deal is made about how he’s not usually like this, which shows, in case you’re not picking up on it, that Hamish understands Sophie is special and belongs in the castle. It’s subtle like an anvil to the head, which is exactly what I want and expect from this caliber of movie, so bring it on. Now, you may be thinking it’s very odd that the two main characters both a.) seem to be down-to-earth, pleasant people and b.) appear to get along well enough and enjoy each other’s company. Well, hold on to your britches my rom-com rockers because things are about to take a Very Expected change of course! During the tour, Sophie sneaks off to find where her father carved his name (he apparently gave her very clear directions?), which leads to a huge argument and they end up just where we need them to be for this whole shebang to work, which is hating each other! Ah, how love blooms.
Back at the inn, Sophie discovers a pub full of quirky new friends who fully support her decision to kill off the male character (they found him tiresome). They also teach her to knit, reminisce with her about her father, and educate her about the Duke and Dun Dunbar Castle. This, my friends, at nearly twenty minutes into the movie, leads her to the decision we know has been pending this entire time! To buy Dun Dunbar Castle, which is in disrepair and, due to the malfeasance of prior generations, needs a huge influx of money. I do have a few questions about exactly how much money Sophie has accrued from her romance novels. Because there is wealthy and then there is “fix up an entire castle wealthy.” And if she really is the second kind couldn’t she just say a big fuck you to everyone wanting another book and live off the royalties and interest for the rest of her life?
I’ll give you .5 guesses who the Duke of Dun Dunbar is and how he feels about Sophie buying the castle. Ding! Ding! Ding! Yes, it’s our friend in the olive jumpsuit. His name is Myles, (really? Myles, Duke of Dun Dunbar?) and he is a penniless-ish but good-hearted Duke. Well, he’s good-hearted enough that he is doing all he can to pay off the debts for all his tenants who are also Sophie’s quirky pub friends, but not so good-hearted that he doesn’t hatch a plan to scam Sophie out of a large deposit while keeping his castle. She signs a contract agreeing to live at the castle for months before taking ownership. Sure, this is a thing that seems very real and you totally sign without a lawyer reading it first. Meanwhile, Myles works to make her stay as miserable as possible by giving her an unheated attic room that leaks and (GASP!) doesn’t have an en suite bathroom. Okay, so he’s not exactly a total monster. Just an entitled ass.
That said, both Cary Elwes and Brooke Shields are charming in their roles here—even if their acting is stiff and awkward at times, as should be expected with this sub-genre of rom-com—which does a lot to keep the movie’s head above water. While I wouldn’t exactly say there is any sexual chemistry between them, they do have a certain teasing give-and-take that works well for this kind of prickly relationship. Plus, for those of us who came of age on Prince Westley in The Princess Bride, it’s a relief to know that Cary Elwes’s ability to cast a longing look has not dimmed with age. And yes, it’s possible and probable that they have both have had some nipping and tucking done to their faces, but only to a degree where sometimes they look slightly eerie from certain angles. You know, where skin is extra smooth or preternaturally still, and you cock your head and think, Is that how a person’s face usually moves? Or am I forgetting how mouths work?
Fortunately, this rom-com also side-steps most of the usual misogynistic and sexist tropes. Sophie and Myles are on pretty equal footing in terms of their abilities, and I guess it’s almost revolutionary that she may end up taking care of him financially. Sophie’s character almost exclusively wears flat shoes and comfortable clothing. I know this is something I point out a lot, but it’s still a big deal whenever it happens. Women in rom-coms, especially in those written by men, show up in totally inappropriate clothing, which then gets immediately weaponized against them. That’s not the case here, and it’s such a relief. The same is true of how she handles her unheated, leaky castle room. She meets Myles’s attacks with steady determination, fortitude, and a lot of layers. Is that because the writers are women? I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.
Where I do take great umbrage with the movie is the amount of air it gives to a bevy of ableist slurs. It’s done in what’s meant to be a jocular manner, but go ahead and insert any other group of derisive words in there that you wouldn’t imagine throwing around that way and it becomes far less funny. The thing is that the movie wouldn’t have lost anything by tossing those bits, and it actually could have gained some appeal.
Obviously, I’m not going to go and spoil all the very un-astonishing plot twists and turns, but there will be obligatory jokes about “rush hour” while waiting for livestock to cross the road, Sophie will ride off on a bike while Myles watches from a castle window as he sips coffee, hidden talents will emerge, ancient folklore will inspire new ideas, friendships will provide much needed support, an emotionally unavailable recluse will rejoin the community, Hamish will play cupid, the soundtrack will elicit howls of WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? more than once, the chaotic plot line may convince viewers they missed some key hidden scene, someone will be seen half-naked, fights will be had, the line castles are meant to have walls around them; people aren’t will be spoken, horses will be ridden, romance will blossom, chances will almost be lost, dancing will be done, offbeat characters will march to their own drummer, Christmas will come, and love will (most likely) prevail in the end.
What I’m saying is, this movie is by no means great. In fact it’s pretty mediocre, but somehow it’s still not a terrible way to spend an hour and half this YuleTubing season. What can I say? Life is an enigma. Scotland is pretty. Brooke Shields has got charm. And Cary Elwes can still get it.