Thought Provoking and Mature A Christmas Carol (2019)
by Kristin Battestella
To allow himself rest in the afterlife, the deceased Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham) aides The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis), Present (Charlotte Reily), and Future (Jason Flemyng) in orchestrated a change for good in his soulless, corrupt business partner Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce). Scrooge’s bitter ways effect the health, happiness, and welfare of his clerk Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) and his wife Mary (Vinette Robinson), but confronting Scrooge’s horrible life may not be enough to redeem the miser…
The 2019 BBC miniseries A Christmas Carol produced by Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and Tom Hardy (Venom) is a darker imagining of the perennial Charles Dickens tale with episodic chapters originally called “The Human Beast,” “The Human Heart,” and “A Bag of Gravel” airing stateside on FX as one three hour event. Director Nick Murphy (The Last Kingdom) and writer Stephen Knight (Peaky Blinders) obviously have more time to fill than the more traditional, idyllic, paired-down tellings. Rather than the same old saccharin “God bless us, everyone!” these days viewers expect television to bring on the relatable Victorian bitterness. We often glorify the past, but this A Christmas Carol doesn’t underestimate an audience intimately familiar with weighing every action by gain mentalities and who you know and how much money you have getting you anywhere in life uphill struggles, abuses, and humiliation. Urination, grave desecration, bastards, and F-bombs immediately set this adult tone before ominous winds, crows, eerie graveyards, and a frosty ethereal London 1843. Church bells, purgatory supernatural, and almost Shakespearean asides accent the six feet under coins on the eyes, and no rest in peace as hellish forges, chains, and swinging coffins invoke a much more grim penance. Phantom sleighs dragging the chained behind lead to echoes between the counting-house and the spirit realm. Rattling in the fireplace and cutaways to the point of view from an empty chair realistically lay the forthcoming between worlds – embracing the Victorian off-kilter faerie parallel rather than just a sudden, mere holiday intervention as is often portrayed. Time is taken in A Christmas Carol with handwashing a la Lady Macbeth and ghostly versus guilt-ticking clocks. Hypocritical analysis digs deeper than humbug archetypes, and great horror imagery sets off the familiar but transposed text delivered deftly and naturally without any try-hard ye oldeth. Villainous silhouettes grow darker when we get the famous workhouses, prisons, and let them die disturbing. Shadows and black horses take the place of the locomotive on the stairs as other animal kindnesses born out of cruelty and hopeful lantern flashes contrast the creaking gate and ghostly door knocker. While most adaptations have a quick start or only run eighty minutes themselves, here it takes an hour before we even get to the Scrooge and Marley encounter. This A Christmas Carol simmers and broods, for these apparitions have been a long time coming with thumps in the night, groaning houses, clicking locks, and guilty consequences. Chilling reasons for that scarf usually around Marley’s jaw become macabre shocks as A Christmas Carol takes the hallmarks of a story that’s tough to do wrong and runs with the one-on-one encounters, twofer deliveries, and fiery flashbacks. Faulty subcontracts and bribing officials led to bloody workhouse disasters, gas explosions, and coal mine collapses while Scrooge passed the blame and forged those symbolic chains.
The First Chapter of A Christmas Carol is excellent as is the second. However, when expanding such a short novella, the balance is bound to be uneven. Here Christmas Past is featured for almost an hour and a half – leaving twenty minutes for The Ghost of Christmas Present and only ten minutes for The Future. After such depth with The Past, viewers wonder why Andy Serkis just didn’t play one composite spirit? Upon moving on from him with only forty-five minutes left, suddenly this A Christmas Carol is rushed, running out of time, and on the same pace as any other adaptation. Onscreen Christmas Eve 1843 openings don’t match Marley’s 1842 grave marker and the supposed seven years since his passing, but nor do the 1851 death dates. The melancholy focus will tiresome audiences, yet the quick finale feels like this should have been longer – a four-hour, two-night event. All that Past just opened Scrooge up so The Present can show warmth by making him wear a scarf and tinge his heart in a third of the time? The often excised Ali Babi brings a dash of childhood wonder into such grim, but making The Ghost of Christmas Present a woman to soften up Scrooge negates the progressive gender change and defeats the purpose of ditching young Scrooge’s for love or money choice. While losing the seemingly essential festive Fezziwig works wonders, the exclusion of eavesdropping on Nephew Fred’s is a missed opportunity when you’ve made his mother The Ghost of Christmas Present. The Past repeatedly tells Scrooge this is not a game – long after Scrooge stops making passive-aggressive asides – but Fred’s mocking his uncle and Scrooge’s family resentment would have fit in well with this bitter A Christmas Carol. Viewers begin to notice famous wording and elements missing. Did we skip an episode? Did the editor lose a reel? My favorite moment with Ignorance and Want is also excised when the decrepit child motifs would have fit these acerbic themes, and the casting lots on the bedclothes bargaining is another profiting on death horror that is surprisingly absent as if the writers simply didn’t finish adapting the fourth stave of the book or the production plum ran out of time and money. At times A Christmas Carol doesn’t seem to trust what it has in these exceptional performances and the timeless source material, adding in extra dialogue when looking at the camera directly implies the fourth wall is already broken and the spiritual work is coming for us next. Some truly good or innocent and in tune characters are said to see the usually invisible Scrooge and company – a haunting provocation wonderfully bringing this seeming radical A Christmas Carol right back to Dickens, for “I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”
Occasionally Guy Pearce (Brimstone) looks top hat debonair as Ebenezer Scrooge, but the greased hair, liver spots, curled lip, and scratchy voice are looking foul decrepit to match the black ink said to run through his veins. According to Scrooge, gifts are falsely sought and dressed in ribbons to create artificial happiness and fake grins. No one really means their tidings of joy, and the December 25 dates, wise men, and snow in Palestine “facts” are just more perpetuated lies revealing who we presume to be and who we really are on Christmas or any other day. If such yule transformations were true, then why aren’t we such lambs every day with one day of misery to say what we really mean? Scrooge remains isolated in his office, looking out his window on the noisy world as time is taken for his extrapolated soliloquies on pretense and humbug. However, even the camera pulls back when he approaches, recoiling at his despicable holiday honesty. Scrooge is obsessed with counting, an OCD itemizing when he’s frustrated by poor fools and pesky specters. After talking to himself and almost missing Marley, Scrooge is angry at the deceased’s appearance, defiant, and regrets nothing. Although put in his place early with scary past confrontations, he uses his history to justify why he is this way but not that he needs to change. Shrewd Scrooge buys liquidating businesses under price before selling them at true value and smiles at the wheeling and dealing done in his prime. He even tells The Ghost of Christmas Past to write off a new coat as a business expense if subjects keep clawing and crying on his robe. Repeatedly rationalizing every profit over human cost and exploiting all opportunities despite any anguish, Scrooge revels in dangling the keys to his safe before the desperate. Once defensive and refusing to look, he grows ashamed of his actively cruel behavior in an excellent dual performance contrasting past and presents Scrooge side by side. Scrooge practices positive greetings in the mirror but looks more creepy doing so. He doesn’t know how to change even if he admits he may do things differently if given the chance, for it was his own innocence sold that spurred this solidarity with money. Scrooge regrets and apologizes, trying to break the spirit rules and interfere yet he refuses redemption. He accepts he was wrong and deserves to not be forgiven as softer hair and nicer skin suggest his revitalization. Scrooge runs through the street like George Bailey, closing his business and giving away money. Payoffs won’t make everything right but he has to start being a better person somewhere. Don’t we all? Although I wish we heard some of the traditional wording from him – and I want to make his long dress coat – once again I ask where the awards are for Guy Pearce. Sometimes, he also looks like Sean Bean here. I hadn’t noticed this before and now I demand they play brothers in future yearly gothic holiday adaptations. Van Helsing, Jekyll and Hyde, yes please. Please please please please!
Instead of just saying he sat beside Scrooge and tried to reach him, Stephen Graham’s (This is England) restless Jacob Marley has much more to do. Marley anchors the transitions between counting-house and underworld as the realms bleed through like a double negative. He wants his own absolution and needs Scrooge to get him such Clarence-esque wings, deepening the potential penance via his own encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Anguished Marley thinks he’ll be stuck in purgatory forever if his redemption hinges on Scrooge. He believes their reality was a choice, also appearing after the spirits to admit how wrong they were in life, and it’s fascinating to see his realization as the culmination rather than the impetus of A Christmas Carol. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) looks like an undead, ancient Santa as the Ghost of Christmas Past – a cranky minder of souls perpetually burning forgotten holiday hopes. The character also appears as the evil Scrooge Senior in pure horror torment as well as the literary friend Ali Baba in bittersweet moments. His eerie hood is not the sentimental sprite we expect, and the dried wreath on his head carries a crown of thorns, Christ-like innocence lost. Instead of the distinguishing cap, a zoetrope hat casts past shadows on the wall in an excellent visualization of the then-new to see the old. Weary over Scrooge’s excuses, The Past sends progressive Ghost of Christmas Present Charlotte Riley (The Take) in the guise of sister Lottie Scrooge in a lovely change again deserving of much more than repetitive family exposition and narrating already seen actions from characters that could have said everything themselves. Logical Lottie understands Scrooge’s past pain, combining the scientific and sensitive to confront Scrooge before the mouth sewn shut, grave digger-esque Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class) as The Ghost of Christmas Future enters tolling a broken bell. He’s said to be the most terrifying of the spirits and the one who ultimately decides Scrooge’s fate, but unfortunately, he doesn’t really appear to do anything but provide the disturbing Tiny Tim fate. The Past had equally frightening moments, and The Future merely disappears as Scrooge ultimately amends on his own.
Joe Alwyn (also in Mary Queen of Scots with Pearce) doesn’t really stand out for me among the numerous lookalike blonde boy band-type actors abound these days. His Bob Cratchit seems somewhat young, weak, and ineffectual, but that is fitting for an overworked father trying to keep his meager family together. Scrooge thinks four lumps of coal is more than reasonable despite his clerk’s frozen ink and continues to rag on him for a word misspelled once five years ago. Exasperated Bob insists he doesn’t get angry and does his work perfectly to spite Scrooge. He doesn’t hate his employer and remains kinds to Scrooge, asking if he is himself when they have such surprisingly frank conversations on this peculiar Christmas Eve. Bob has to toe the line between passive-aggressive asides and really talking back or standing up to his boss. He tells Scrooge he knows indeed how precarious his situation is, making us wonder why “situation” as synonymous with “job” fell out of terminology when the family to feed or ill health reasons that one toils should be paramount. Vinette Robinson’s (Sherlock) Mary Cratchit is frazzled and snippy, making excuses to her husband and sketching stories for Tiny Tim because they have no money for books. Only having two little Cratchits and a relative aptly named Martha tightens the familial focus, and Mary resorts to terrible secrets and forgoes her pride in a desperate need to save her son. She prays to be forgiven for what she has to do and asks Jesus to turn his head over such blackmail and lies. The holiday means Mary has to revisit one terrible Christmas every year, repeatedly going outdoors rather than face the congested weight and manifested guilt as the spiritual influences come full circle. Rather than the usual poor but happy brevity, A Christmas Carol develops The Cratchits as conflicted people, embodying how the one who has to power to alleviate their suffering can cause more oppression without having to lay a creepy hand on anyone.
The titular icicle script ekes out the ghostly etching with a cold nib to match the frosted windows and meager candle flame frigid. Snow abounds alongside carriages, street lamps, sleighs, ice skating, and crowded streets. However, there are precious little signs of Christmas in A Christmas Carol. No holly, few wreaths or plain garlands, no old fashioned merry, and the only jolly comes in brief carol notes and fiddle melodies cut short. While the night time blue tint is easier to see, the over-saturation may be intentionally noticeable and otherworldly. There are also some unnecessary swooping pans over the cobblestone streets but fortunately, these are only used early on to set the Londontown bustle versus the paranormal underbelly. Stage-like blocking, lighting schemes, and careful attention to detail visualize characterizations with gleams of light shining through the windows as natural, hopeful rays or framing dark silhouettes as needed. The counting-house office is divided between a brighter front and a darker back office with a wall of ledgers between rooms that the clerk must repeatedly go around to talk to Scrooge. Intercut foreshadowing between worlds leaves onscreen space for characters on another plane, subtly establishing Scrooge and Marley’s partnership even if the men are technically not together in the same scene. Echoing footsteps, bells, chimes, and creaking invoke period as well as horror amid hellish red fireplaces and disturbing imagery. Pox marks and sullen pallors match the tattered gloves and shabby bonnets on the poor while slightly more refined styles set the wealthy apart with top hats, ascots, waistcoats, pocket watches, and frock coats. A Christmas Carol looks at the early Victorian part without relying on the expected women’s silhouette thanks to fantastical cloaks, steampunk touches, and choose special effects. Dark upon dark schemes set off the horror visuals and cave-ins as the fog and frigid grow inside as well as out in the largely empty interiors. Groaning walls and a growing bed are ominous without being overbearing. The optical tricks are simple with slow zooms or camera cuts to where a spirit might be, leaving the chill up the spine carried by one’s looking over his shoulder and frightful reaction shots – as the scares should be.
Certainly, there are more genteel family-friendly adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and this decidedly darker spin won’t be for those seeking any lighthearted Dickensian comforts. It also takes planning to settle in for the whole three-hour block stateside. Although the chapter title cards are retained and once we’re on this retrospective journey it’s tough to stop, having had the original UK episodic format would solve the dreary, dragging complaints. I watched this multiple times to pause and take notes, and there are more insights the more you watch. Despite an uneven weakness rushed in the latter half, the redemption arc fits this darker tone. Here there’s no overnight exuberance, and it makes the viewer consider how fast and superficial other interpretations now seem when the longer television format allows for such grim, thought-provoking extrapolation. It leaves one wanting more of this A Christmas Carol, and its unabashed look in the mirror is watchable beyond the holiday season – paralleling the words herein to be the best person we can be daily rather than just faking it at Christmas.
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