Review by Daniel Blackaby November 21, 2022
I Heard the Bells — Movie Review
Verdict: A well-crafted and meaningful story about finding hope and beauty amidst a broken world.
About The Movie
The Christmas movie season is fast approaching. This time of year provides fertile soil for uplifting stories. The faith-based film I Heard the Bells is a Christmas movie, but of a different sort than many traditional holiday films. It tells the true story of how the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the exquisite poem and holiday carol “Christmas Bells” against the backdrop of the Civil War and intense personal tragedy. As both an unabashed classic literature nerd and a Christmas fanatic, the film intrigued me. Despite suffering from a few shortcomings prevalent in many faith-based films, I Heard the Bells is a well-crafted and meaningful story with enough filmmaking competency to do the subject justice.
The movie is the first film from Sight and Sound, which has previously focused on theatrical performances. It’s a surprisingly strong debut effort. The theater background is evident at times, particularly in the acting. That’s not to say the performances are poor. In fact, they’re quite good. But they have a theatrical flair. For the most part, the film represents a successful move into cinema. The cinematography is well done with moments of sophistication, such as a few well-executed longer tracking shots and some clever transitions. As with most faith-based films, I Heard the Bells lacks the budget or spectacle of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. For example, the Civil War battle action happens just off screen. Nevertheless, the filmmakers make the most of what they have, and the set design never feels cheap or of the “Church Christmas Program” variety.
The heart of the film and its biggest strength is the story itself. I Heard the Bells has a deep and meaningful story that it shares rather than preaches. Like many, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with faith-based films, since they too often feel like sermons poorly disguised as movies. I Heard the Bells doesn’t overcook its message. It focuses on the personal journey of Longfellow and to a lesser extent, his family. In other words, it’s not a sermon about finding God amidst grief and suffering; it’s the story of how a broken man found hope.
Even during what might be considered the more “didactic” or “evangelistic” scenes, such as a priest attempting to comfort Longfellow in a church, the answers the film gives are not all that intellectually satisfying. But they don’t need to be. The priest is not trying to deliver an evangelistic spiel to the audience; he is comforting an individual. As a result, there is a degree of realism that makes Longfellow’s journey feel more powerful. I Heard the Bells shares an important message about faith and grief, but it never feels like a Sunday School lesson, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Lastly, this is a Christmas film, but not a particularly festive one. The opening thirty minutes are warm and comforting, but the rest of the runtime is somber. This is clearly by design considering the weightier subject matter, and certainly not all Christmas films are required to be breezy singalongs. Perhaps adjust your expectations accordingly.
I went into I Heard the Bells hoping that my deep love of literature and Christmas would make the expected cringe-worthiness of a faith-based film more palatable, and I was pleased to find my concerns unfounded. I greatly enjoyed this film and expect it will inspire many others this holiday season. With this impressive debut, Sight & Sound is off to an extremely promising start, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.
On the Surface
Violence: A woman’s dress catches on fire and she dies from the event. The scene is not gruesome, and the burned skin is not shown. But it may be intense for younger viewers. There are also several moments in which characters describe, in somewhat grim detail, the horrific consequences of the war.
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
Finding Hope in God Amidst a Broken World
The movie draws its main theme directly from the poem itself, which beautifully captures Longfellow’s struggle to see God at work in a world filled with so much pain and suffering. Essentially, the story is an exploration of the classical philosophical problem of evil (ie. if God is all loving and all powerful, then how is there so much evil in the world?). It’s a difficult problem, and the film never attempts to simplify it. Instead, it personalizes it.
In one scene, Longfellow has a heated conversation with his son, who desires to enlist in the army: “This is not God’s will for you,” he says, to which his son responds, “God’s will. So, you still believe in that? What do you think he was doing when [a family tragedy happened]. Was he sleeping? Hope? I will not put it in a God who is sleeping. Or a God who is dead…there, I said it for both of us.” Earlier, Longfellow expresses his personal grief, “If God gave me the voice of a poet, then why did he take my poetry from me? I will never write again. As the dead lie silent. My voice lies silent. Let the war within me rage.”
The movie doesn’t minimize suffering (the real Longfellow never truly recovered from his grief) or attempt to provide a canned “free-will defense” to the question. Instead, it allows the characters to grieve, and in that grief to find God’s peace. I Heard the Bells doesn’t endeavor to explain why God allows suffering to exist, but it reminds viewers that it is in the middle of suffering that we need to draw nearest to God (Matthew 11:28-30).
The Power of Art
Another theme is the power of art to provide comfort and hope. Longfellow’s wife expresses that the world needs poets to put into words what everyone else is feeling. At various times and in numerous contexts, the impact of his poetry is seen. Yet the film doesn’t seem to hold an idealistic “art will change the world” mindset. In one scene, Longfellow’s son confronts his father, arguing that he wrote poems against slavery, but he won’t let him enlist in the army to fight against it. Poetry is a powerful force, but it can also be an escape. Longfellow’s poetry may inspire the nation, but it was not a substitute for action.