BBC America premieres the thoughtful, made-for-TV drama Mr. Harvey Lights a Candle as a Christmas Eve viewing gift, in which an unhappy, distant, and obdurate high school teacher, Mr. Harvey (Timothy Spall, Secrets and Lies) has organized a class trip to Salisbury Cathedral. Mr. Harvey’s melancholic unhappiness seems a constant rebuke of his unruly and self-absorbed students, including Helen (Natalie Press), Phil (Daniel Bliss), and Archie (David Bradley). Fellow teachers Miss Davies (Celia Imrie, Calendar Girls) and Mr. Cole (Ben Miles) often find themselves running interference for Mr. Harvey on this day’s journey and soon find they are not along just to chaperone the bus ride.
Mr. Harvey has not been to Salisbury in over twenty years, not since the year of his wedding, when he and his young bride spent their honeymoon touring every cathedral in England. Although his colleagues know he was widowed by the time he was hired by their school, Mr. Harvey’s students (whose nickname for him is Mr. Happy) cannot imagine him ever having been with a woman. Indeed, the plot is structured around the mystery of his romantic past, and that is the provocation for the endless cruel pranks and scorn his students heap upon him, both behind his back and to his face.
Screenwriter Rhidian Brook sets up a subtle metaphorical journey. On first impression, the kids seem to be immature, spoiled, materialistic brats. As the bus coach drives across Salisbury Plain past Stonehenge, the precociously jaded youths dismiss it with sneering remarks about the heaping pile of rocks. As the camera dwells on a Mr. Harvey frequently mentally absent, lost behind the blank screen of his eyes, the viewer becomes aware the entire class is on a metaphysical journey. As the kids seem incapable of comprehending anything beyond their immediate gratification of arcade games, junk food, and hook-ups (the bus breaks down forcing everyone to hang out in a rest stop along the motorway), the story seems to take a sociological turn — perhaps modern society has failed today’s youth in some fundamental way.
One student, who is secretly a graffiti artist, taunts and teases another boy, partly because the other boy is Islamic, partly because he has a (non-denominationally) pious nature. Another male student seems obsessed with sex and self-gratification, and hits on a walking-wounded female student. She, in turn, is a cutter, ands bears the marks of self-mutilation on her arm, dismissing them with a jaded air, just more of her generation’s style of thrill-seeking. As the coach makes its way across southern England, problems erupt (the coach’s symbolic breakdown). All the while, the bus driver offers up pronouncements, Tiresius-like, to the teachers about the unforeseen incidents, scuffles, and accidents on the road. By the time the group of travelers actually arrive at the cathedral, it is clear they are all pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.
Once at Salisbury Cathedral, this modest film opens elegantly – for all their petty faults, the students are shown to be fully human and fully alive, and able to begin seeing into the nature of their own imperfections. They, in turn, help Mr. Harvey return to the land of the living. Salisbury Cathedral assumes its role as a, if not the, primary character, labyrinth and catalyst for (nonsectarian) spiritual discovery. On the road, an interesting philosophical discussion on the nature of spiritual beliefs and practices in a multicultural society has been unfolding, and theory is put to the test in the cathedral.
The metaphysical exploration this film attempts is laudable, though not always successful — the made-for-TV format seems too small to accommodate all that its creators have tried to cram in here. Nonetheless, as all the characters trundle off at the film’s close, heartened and changed by each of their epiphanies, images of Salisbury Cathedral linger. Just how dead are those heaping piles of stones from earlier eras? And what piles of stone have we heaped up in honor of the gods of our own age?