...shining light on the media, one review at a time
For most people, celebrating Christmas means spending time with family. Often, that’s a wonderful thing, but for some it can mean unpleasant conflict, as feuding family members are forced to be in the same place, personalities rub each other badly, or old wounds are reopened.
The Gathering features just such a situation, where a severed family is brought together at Christmastime. The reason for this gathering is unusual and the stakes are high, but the scenario is one that almost everyone can relate to. The result of that accessibility is a moving, timeless story that, if you don’t already know it, is likely to become a new Christmas favorite.
When most people are hustling and bustling with last-minute shopping, Adam Thornton gets a present he doesn’t expect—the news that he only has a few months to live. Having singlehandedly built a successful business and kept it running smoothly on his toughness and savvy, Thornton takes the news better than most. He doesn’t cry or melt down, but the fact that in his seemingly healthy middle age he has suddenly run out of time is still a jolt.
A quick assessment of Adam’s life shows a bleak picture. His affairs in what he now sees as the important areas of life are not, as Adam puts it, “in order.” Separated from his wife of many years, Adam lives alone while Kate occupies the huge house they once shared. Adam hasn’t fared much better with his two adult sons, as he constantly locks horns with one and hasn’t seen the other since Adam kicked him out of the house for wanting to duck the Vietnam draft. One of Adam’s daughters (the mother of his grandchildren) is friendly, but the eldest doesn’t speak to Adam because of the split with Kate.
Hardly the makings of a happy Christmas, and Adam knows better than to try for a holiday occasion. Instead, he determines to visit his children while he still feels healthy enough to travel. The plans for peacemaking quickly get shot down, however, when Adam’s doctor advises against a trip. With persuasion and optimism from Kate, Adam reluctantly goes along with the idea of inviting the family home for Christmas. But Adam insists on one qualification—no one must know that he’s dying. If the children come, Adam wants to be sure their decision is not out of pity.
The invitation is last minute and the damaged relationships seem irreparable, but what the Thornton family needs most is a very special Christmas.
Though this plot may sound clichéd or gimmicky to some, The Gathering never gives the feeling of manipulation or any lack of originality. Several movies have attempted the dying man (or woman) storyline, but The Gathering is one of only two films that handle the premise so superbly (the other being the 1986 classic, Christmas Eve).
A primary reason for this success is that The Gathering’s characters and story are so deeply realized that one almost instantly lets go of any preconceived notions or cynicism. Though Adam is the center of the story, the supporting characters are fully developed, as the film takes viewers into the lives of each of the Thornton children as they grapple with their issues concerning their father and the invitation to return home for Christmas.
This smart script decision to give insight into the younger Thorntons’ lives is well-handled so that these scenes serve to enhance our understanding for Adam as the central character, rather than detaching us from him, as is the result of this technique when poorly applied in other films. In addition, the story grows to be about much more than one man, becoming the tale of a whole family made up of ordinary, but hurting people, who are infinitely relatable.
The strength of the story and scriptwriting is enhanced through the remarkable performances of the actors, from the least-known to the highly respected and famous stars. One expects a good showing from Ed Asner, playing Adam, but his performance here is arguably the best of his career. He is well-supported by Academy Award winner Maureen Stapleton as Kate, who takes her small role and builds it into the most memorable and powerful of the film.
More surprising is the strength of the actors filling the smaller roles, especially those of the Thornton children. As Adam’s daughter, Peggy, Gail Strickland (who may be familiar to some from her much later role on the TV show Dr. Quinn – Medicine Woman) shows the talent that should’ve garnered her larger parts and greater critical acclaim in her career than she has actually received. Another relatively unknown gem is Rebecca Balding, who gives a gripping performance as the youngest daughter, Julie.
Ultimately, director Randal Kleiser undoubtedly deserves a great deal of credit for the standout acting of The Gathering. The hand of a true actors’ director is obvious, as only insightful and inspirational handling of the onscreen talent could result in such creative freedom for the actors to shape and explore their roles so thoroughly. This level of attention to performance and character is rare in TV movies, and the positive result makes this film a treasure.
The only production area in which The Gathering can be faulted is the cinematography, as, similar to most made-for-TV movies, the camerawork is more utilitarian than artistic. That said, the filming is still done well and the emphasis in the blocking and action is on realism, which lends a welcome authenticity to the scenes. In this case, keeping the camera out of the way results in an absence of distraction from the character-driven story. Much of what is shot is also so filled with snowy Christmas beauty and the warmth of traditional decorative settings that the absence of sophisticated cinematography is barely missed.
Unlike many more recent films, The Gathering filmmakers didn’t make the mistake of sullying this meaningful story with an overdose of negative or offensive content. They did allow some foul language to slip in—including a few uses of “h---” and one “d---.” This blemish, however, is outweighed by the otherwise redemptive story and the powerful lessons it conveys.
Keeping the other elements of the film clean allows the messages of forgiveness, love, and hope (to name a few) to have their fullest impact on viewers and enable the film to reach a broader audience. Because The Gathering features a mature storyline with mostly adult characters and concerns, some young children may not get as much out of this film as their parents, but the story is accessible enough to entertain all ages.
Few movies, especially from the rather dry cinematic period of the late 70’s and 80’s, can be called timeless. But thanks to a memorable story, excellent writing, and a strong cast, The Gathering is among those rare films. The fashions shown in this movie may come and go (much of the actors’ style of clothing is “in” again now), but the appeal of the story will likely never dwindle. For through The Gathering, viewers are reminded that at Christmastime and throughout the year, the power of forgiveness and love are unceasing.
Check out these similar titles:
Christmas Eve (Michael Filmerman Productions, 1986)
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (Columbia Pictures Television, 1984)
A Christmas Carol (Entertainment Partners, Ltd., 1984)
For more ideas, visit The Christmas List!