Olivia's 1994 film A Christmas Romance was really Olivia's celebration that she was alive and well after her ordeal with breast cancer. The film was also special as Chloe, in her screen debut, played her on-screen daughter (billed as Chloe Lattanzi). As Olivia said: "We'll always have this memento of this year and this time in our lives and this phase of her [Chloe's] life." The film however was nothing to do with cancer or illness although it did deal with death and bereavement in a sensitive way.
A Christmas Romance has a well-written story with a few subplots to it. Whilst being primarily a family movie with a happy ending it manages to deal with some difficult issues. The main plot is simple though, Olivia plays Julia who has major financial problems which were worsened with the death of her husband two years previously. She has two daughters, lives in the mountains surrounded by farm animals and good neighbours. Gregory Harrison plays Brian a banker from the big, bad city who has to visit Julia to tell her that unless she pays her rent they'll have to leave their mountain house. Unfortunately Brian gets caught in a severe snow storm and has to spend a few days with the family. At first only five year old Emily Rose (played by Stephanie Sawyer) likes Brian believing he is the Christmas Stranger, Dennie (Chloe) however calls him a dork and Julia tells Brian that the only reason she's looking after him after his car crash is: "I just don't want you dying on me. People might think I murdered you, specially if they knew you!" However, Brian discovers he likes children, life in the mountain and most of all Julia. He wins over Dennie, he and Julia fall in love and he helps Julia carve a career baking cakes and the family stay in their beloved house!
The simple plot is helped along by an amusing script and nice acting from Chloe and Stephanie. Olivia manages to portray Julia well, some of her facial expressions are great. The scene at the dinner table where Emily Rose is urged to eat her carrots and she replies that Brian hasn't eaten his is met with a wonderful stern look from Olivia as Brian is forced to eat one.
The chemistry between Olivia and Gregory Harrison in this film works very well and their romance, whilst unrealistically quick, has some nice touches. Such as when Julia pauses as she takes the shirt off an unconscious Brian to feel his muscular torso in her arms; the touching scene where Brian and Julia fall asleep unawares in each others' arms. Julia awakes and realises just how much she misses having a man around. The next morning whilst milking a cow Julia embarrassingly tries to explain the situation away blaming it on normal womanly reflexes whilst Brian dismisses the incident offhand.
Julia is also portrayed as a very strong, independent woman who can do anything: cook on an open fire, chop wood, tend the animals and deliver a lamb. However, the strength of her character is that she is not without fault; she tends to hide from her financial worries and hasn't really told her youngest daughter the full truth about the death of her husband. It is left to Brian to explain about death and life after death/heaven.
The film has positive messages throughout. For example after the death of Dennie's pet sheep Julia comforts her daughter with the words: "Bad things happen I can't deny that but good things happen too...They make the bad things a little easier to take." Julia explains that after the death of her husband she felt that nothing good would happen again but that her two daughters make life worth living and are the best thing that had ever happened to her. This is rather fitting considering that Olivia has repeatedly stated that paradoxically it was her cancer that made her stronger, less afraid and emphasisied something she'd always known - that her family were the most important thing in her life. Julia and Brian also discuss holding onto the past too much and the still unusual concept in today's society that you can have fun doing the work you love. By the end of the film Brian who loves to paint and Julia who wants to earn her living baking her delicious cakes whilst living in the mountains both fulfil their hearts' desires.
Dying is dealt firstly with the death of Julia's husband and then the death of Daisy, the sheep, whilst giving birth to a lamb. In a less strong film both lamb and sheep would have survived but A Christmas Romance is better than that. Motherhood is also considered as Julia talks to the sheep: "You put up such a good fight. I guess that's what mothers do, we just don't always win."
Environmental matters, always close to Olivia's heart, also get a look in as Julia tells the children that they'll plant two new trees in the Spring to replace the one they cut down for Christmas.
Behind The Scenes
A Christmas Romance filmed in British Columbia, Canada took only 20 days to shoot and it was done in very wet conditions and with a stubborn donkey that got nervous with all the activity. Chloe's performance (she was 8 at the time) was strong and there didn't seem to be any problems with mother and daughter working together. Talking of working together on the EXTRA show Olivia said: "I didn't want to be a stage mum, so had to offer to back off because I didn't want to interfere with my relationships with other people." Whilst Chloe didn't always find working with her mother that easy: "Say you had a fight with your mother and you had to do a really nice scene with her, like Oh mum it's so good to see you. It's hard when you had fights and had to do nice scenes." A rather reassuring quote for parents to discover that even Olivia and Chloe have arguments!
A Christmas Romance was a little disappointing in that it didn't contain much music. Way Of Love from Gaia was used over the opening and closing credits and if you listen carefully you can hear Olivia singing snippets of Jingle Bells, Away In A Manager and Good King Wenslas. Also the set is rather dark in parts (which I guess is reasonable enough since it is set in the Winter and the electricity fails!) It would have also been nice to see Olivia in a few more outfit changes. Having that she dresses appropriately portraying a mother of two living a basic life in the mountains.
The film first aired on US CBS in December 1994 with very good ratings (coming 7th in the weeks ratings proving that Olivia is still popular!). It's shown regularly at Christmas time in the US, Canada, Australia and in northern Europe. There was a video released in the UK in 1995 by Odyssey (ODY 446). This actually contains a few minutes extra footage than the version shown on US TV (the scene with Olivia and her daughters delivering cakes on the video is slightly longer). In 2001 Odyssey also released a great DVD (region 2 - Europe)
Review by Helen, taken from Only Olivia newsletter