'An Old-Fashioned Christmas' gives romance a modern twist

Don't let the title of Hallmark Channel's "An Old-Fashioned Christmas" -- airing Saturday, Dec. 11 -- fool you.

Sure, it's set in the 1860s, when news traveled by letter, and gentility was cherished. But at the heart of this movie are heroines who face the modern challenges of maintaining independence while seeking love.

There are also pride and shattered families, redemption and forgiveness, all fairly timeless themes even if the women wear bustles and the men doff top hats.

"I always think everybody's human," says Jacqueline Bisset, who adds that that enabled her to relate to her character, Isabella Crawford.

"She had a little edge to her," Bisset says. Enough of an edge that one of the first lines about Isabella is from a young man she immediately sizes up, and he says to her, "Ah, there's a tone that could clip a hedge."

Isabella is a formidable woman, a well-traveled widow with money and an interesting past. The film, a follow-up to the cable station's "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving" two years ago, also gives Isabella a future.

She's traveling with her granddaughter, Tilly (Catherine Steadman, "The Tudors"), who's equally headstrong. Isabella takes Tilly to Ireland.

The grandmother wants her granddaughter to become a famous writer. Tilly, though, is intent on becoming a good writer, not necessarily a famous one.

Tilly has an ulterior motive for wanting to visit Ireland: She wants to meet her paternal grandfather, Sean (Ian McElhinney, "The Tudors").

Tilly's mother (Isabella's daughter) had married Sean's late son. Isabella was so outraged by her daughter's choice of a stable boy that she cut off all relations.

Now Isabella compensates by taking Tilly on a world tour, but Isabella hasn't learned that her imperious way of meddling doesn't work.

When Sean finally meets Isabella, he tells her what his son thought of her: "When he worked for you, he said you were cheap. When he fell in love with your daughter, he said you were the devil."

Sean and Isabella barely tolerate being on the same farm. In this sort of movie, such rancor is guaranteed to blossom into love. That theme repeats itself in the younger generation.

Though Tilly wanted to meet her father's side of the family, Isabella's reason for taking Tilly to Ireland is to meet one of her former lovers. The Earl of Shannon (Robert O'Mahoney), a respected writer, could help Tilly. A stroke left him physically incapacitated but mentally alert. Despite his wife's airs, the family is broke.

Of course viewers see it coming: The frumpy Lady Shannon (Marion O'Dwyer, "The Clinic") harbors jealousy toward the glamorous Isabella. But Lady Shannon puts aside her bruised ego to try to bolster their finances. She nakedly plots that her son, Cameron (Leon Ockenden), and Tilly marry, assuming that Tilly will inherit her grandmother's money.

"Of course you will be providing for her when you're gone," Lady Shannon says.

"I'm not gone yet," Isabella retorts.

The young would-be lovers hate each other, then fall for each other. It's what happens after that gets interesting. Shot in County Clare and at a castle that gives the Irish countryside its charm, the film goes beyond: He's a rakish dilettante; she's a studious artist. Whatever will happen?

Tilly's fiance shows up, egged on by Isabella. Gideon "Gad" Hopkins (Kristopher Turner) has an ethical core, unlike the feckless Cameron. Yet Cameron has that dashing novelty.

Trying to sort out her love life and ignore Isabella's edicts, Tilly snaps at her grandmother that she's glad her own mother escaped her clutches.

"I can see dressing you like a lady hasn't made you one," Isabella responds.

Isabella is arch, yet a good person lurks deep within. Isabella must also come to terms with her choices. None are surprising, but all are satisfying. Much of that is because the film feels authentic from the setting to the costuming, which Bisset says definitely helps her get into character.

"Once I get the corsets sorted out -- getting the underclothes sorted out -- they give you your social position, your stance, your base, how you walk, how you are," Bisset says. "It is amazing how those various underpinnings are constructed. Putting them on, the basic corset and the cushion thing, and petticoats, and it all builds to a different line. And the fun part was getting onto the horse sidesaddle."

Wearing those stiff clothes, sitting sidesaddle was an adjustment, just as it was for the woman who for so long played ingenues to play a grandmother.

During the four-week shoot, Bisset says she slipped and referred to Tilly as her daughter, a result of Isabella leaving her daughter behind in the States and the audience not seeing her.

As for the audience, Bisset says she hopes viewers "like these people. I think it is a pleasant and beautiful setting. I just felt good, and I hope I wasn't too bossy."