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This year’s most dazzling festive movie steps back to Father Christmas’s childhood 

One evening, stalling about going to bed as children love to do, novelist Matt Haig’s son asked him a question that was to lead first to a bestselling children’s book and now a feature film starring some of Britain’s best-known actors. 

‘Daddy, was Father Christmas ever a boy?’ was the question Lucas, then seven, asked.

Matt was writing a memoir about his depression, Reasons To Stay Alive, at the time and pondered his son’s question as an escape from the much tougher topic of his own mental health. ‘I’d had no plans to write a children’s book at all,’ he recalls. ‘But I wanted to write about something very different from depression and I’m very pleased I did.’

The book, A Boy Called Christmas, was an instant hit in 2015 and has now been turned into a gorgeous festive tale dripping with snow, elves and reindeer and starring Dame Maggie Smith, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. The story starts in the present day when Aunt Ruth (Dame Maggie) goes to babysit for three children who have recently lost their mother. 

Matt Haig’s hit book A Boy Called Christmas has been turned into a festive film starring Dame Maggie Smith, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. Pictured: Henry Lawfull as Nikolas

She tells them an enchanting tale about the time before Father Christmas and we’re transported to a magical land.

A boy called Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) lives in a frozen forest with his woodcutter father Joel (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman). His mother died years earlier but he loves to recall the stories she’d tell about the time she lived in a mysterious place called Elfhelm, filled with happy elves.

One day the king (Jim Broadbent) summons all his subjects and asks them to go and find something that will reignite hope and happiness in his forlorn kingdom. Nikolas’s father goes off to look for Elfhelm, leaving the boy in the care of his nasty Aunt Carlotta (Kristen Wiig). 

She treats him appallingly, so he escapes to try and find Elfhelm on his own, accompanied only by his pet mouse Miika who, it emerges, can speak (and he sounds a lot like Stephen Merchant).

With the help of a magical reindeer, Nikolas does find the elf village and makes friends with elves Father Topo (Toby Jones) and Little Noosh (Indica Watson). But disaster has befallen this village too, it’s now under the dictatorial rule of Elfhelm leader Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins) and engulfed in misery. Nikolas’s challenge now is to make the people of both lands happy.

‘One of the things I really liked about it was the fact that it was a Christmas movie but not the standard Christmas-movie story,’ says Jim Broadbent. ‘It brings in all sorts of other elements as well, in an imaginative way.’ 

Director Gil Kenan laid down strict rules to avoid making the film look too much like other Christmas movies. Pictured: Toby Jones and Indica Watson as elves

Director Gil Kenan laid down strict rules to avoid making the film look too much like other Christmas movies. Pictured: Toby Jones and Indica Watson as elves

In fact, so different is it to other Christmas stories that there is no mention of the Nativity at all. ‘In some ways it is a secular Christmas fantasy,’ says Matt. ‘It’s full of hope and wonder – and that feeling of excitement you get from Christmas.

‘It’s a story about coming out of darkness, which has taken on a new meaning after the last few years we’ve been through. Stories are things we turn to for comfort, nourishment, understanding, and I hope it’s also a tale that’s exciting and fun. I love Christmas films and this feels like a Christmas wish fulfilled for me.’

Matt’s son Lucas, now 13, has a cameo in the film, in a scene set in an Elf schoolroom, as does his younger sister Pearl, 12. ‘I was asked if I wanted to do a cameo too but I thought no one would be interested in seeing midlife-existential-crisis elf,’ jokes Matt, 46.

It’s a Christmas fantasy full of hope, wonder and excitement 

The film is inspired by Scandinavian myths about trolls and the like, and director Gil Kenan laid down strict rules to avoid making it look too much like other Christmas movies. There were to be no green and red placed next to each other, no stripey socks and no bells on hats or shoes.

Costume designer Ruth Myers relished the chance to try something completely new with Christmas in the land of the elves. 

‘We researched the Inuit and the tribes who lived in Scandinavia and they all have a lot in common in terms of a mixture of leather, embroidery and very bright colours,’ she says. ‘But because it was fantasy, I was also able to put my own take on it.’

Henry Lawfull, whose only previous role had been a small part in the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables, said the film has a message that there's 'always light at the end of the tunnel'. Pictured: Henry as Nikolas with his magical reindeer

Henry Lawfull, whose only previous role had been a small part in the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables, said the film has a message that there’s ‘always light at the end of the tunnel’. Pictured: Henry as Nikolas with his magical reindeer

Ruth and her team of 30 made hundreds of outfits for the film, with a ‘magic shoemaker’ churning out at least 250 pairs of leather boots for the production. For the main cast, up to 20 different versions were made of each costume, which had to be prepared for all weathers. 

Some filming took place in Lapland, but most of it was shot at a film studio in Prague, where an entire Elf village was created.

‘I felt like Charlie winning the golden ticket and entering Willy Wonka’s factory when I saw what they’d created,’ says Matt. ‘It was incredible.’

Production designer Gary Williamson and his team spent four months creating the village by hand out of wood, based partly on Scandinavian dwellings. ‘We made 20-odd houses, plus windmills, a huge hall, a toyshop and a prison where a troll was kept.’

Londoner Henry Lawfull, whose only previous role had been a small part in the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables, was chosen as the special child after producers fell in love with his angelic eyes and red hair during a huge search for their lead actor. 

Now 15, he says it feels like the story has a particular resonance after the pandemic. ‘I think there’s a message that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how bad things are, there’s hope.’  

A Boy Called Christmas is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from Friday.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk