Film review: Home by Christmas

STUNNING ACHIEVEMENT: Wellington film-maker Gaylene Preston's Home by Christmas is a cracker.
STUNNING ACHIEVEMENT: Wellington film-maker Gaylene Preston's Home by Christmas is a cracker.

Fifteen years ago, writer/director Gaylene Preston made the documentary War Stories (Our Mothers Never Told Us). In that film, Preston presented us with interviews – interwoven with music and still photographs – from seven women who had lived through World War II.

War Stories is a graceful, dignified, and startlingly honest take on what a war really does to the people who live through it.

The physical valour and violence of the front lines is too easily mythologised and sold back to us, but the quieter, gentler, subtler travails of the people left behind – especially that of the wives and mothers – is a more elusive tale to tell. In Home by Christmas, Preston takes one of those seven stories – her own mother's history – and expands it into a film in its own right.

Tui Preston had only been married for a few months when her young husband, Ed, joined up and was sent off to north Africa to fight.

"Don't worry," said Ed, "I'll be home by Christmas" – and so he was. Four years late.

Ed spent most of his war in an Italian POW camp. Back in Greymouth, Tui, abandoned while pregnant by a husband who had signed up on the way home from the footie, began an affair with another man. In a series of elegantly staged recreations, Preston shows us wartime in a small West Coast town.

There is an attention to detail, manner, dress and speech here that is completely convincing. Chelsie Preston-Crayford – Gaylene's daughter – is luminous as Tui. Next to her, Martin Henderson brings a warmth and humility to the role of the young Ed that Hollywood might never let him show again.

But it is Tony Barry, bringing to life the elder Ed Preston, in the recreations of the interviews that made this film possible, who will put the lump in your throat and the smoke in your eye. Barry is a wondrous actor, and his performance here is simply extraordinary. There is a transparency, intelligence, and a decency to Barry that made me forget – for long moments – that I was watching an actor at work. His reading of "the lines" is perfect, but Barry also manages to communicate perfectly everything that wasn't said, that wasn't written down. It's a rare and special performance, and it perfectly ballasts this gentle, funny, utterly truthful and reflective film.

Home by Christmas is a stunning achievement by everyone involved. Go see it.

Directed by Gaylene Preston
Starring Tony Barry, Chelsea Preston-Crayford, Martin Henderson.

The Dominion Post