A Christmas Carol ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I've discussed often my fondness for the audio recording of Patrick Stewart's one-man performance of A Christmas Carol, so it should come as no surprise that I've now watched this TV movie version starring him close to a dozen times now. The audio performance is unquestionably stronger and more satisfying, but this has its own merits.

There are two key areas where this adaptation falls short. The most obvious is that its nascent CGI visual effects actually look more dated than the practical effects of the 1984 version. The lone exception is the shot of Scrooge peering out his window to see all the spirits helpless to engage the living; that shot works fairly well. (Though it does beg the question what, if anything, Scrooge later does for the woman and child he sees shivering and huddled up literally across the street from his home.)

The other deficiency is that the narrative feels too rushed. I accept that it was produced for TV and structured around obligatory commercial breaks; so was the '84 version. No, the problem isn't one of pacing so much as the sense that everyone is just trying to hit their marks a lot of the time. Dialog that appears verbatim out of Dickens often sounds more like recitation than performance. Much of the newly written dialog is achingly clumsy exposition. No one really seems to be comfortable with words in this version; not adapting writer Peter Barnes, and few of the actors.

Where this version succeeds, though, is in the little things. As in the original story, this one has the three spirits scheduled to visit on consecutive nights; every other adaptation seems to have them set hourly. It's not terribly important, but it does speak to Scrooge's astonishment in the finale when he remarks, "They've done it all in one night! Of course they did; they can do anything they like!" Believing he'd been in their company for three days casts a very different perception than knowing it was all done overnight.

We also see for the first time in the versions I watched this Christmas morning the Spirit of Christmas Present actually aging, as in the original story. There's the young couple, relieved during Christmas Yet to Come that Scrooge's death will buy them time to come up with the money they owe on a debt that Scrooge would otherwise have foreclosed (I'll never understand substituting for them in the '84 version with the scavenging family).

I love watching Patrick Stewart's Scrooge remembering how to laugh. It's a wonderful moment that may not have worked if Seymour Hicks or George C. Scott had done it, but Stewart sells it. Oh, and for the first time in any adaptation I've seen, Scrooge actually goes to church on Christmas morning and joins in singing. That's been omitted in every other incarnation I've seen. In some ways, watching him remember how to sing pays off remembering to laugh.

My favorite little touch, though, is Bob Cratchit's reaction to Scrooge's enthusiastic raising of his salary. All other Bobs have been momentarily surprised but then immediately rejoice. Not Richard E. Grant's Bob. This Bob stammers backward and seizes the fire poker, ready to defend himself against whatever creature this is that has taken the form of his employer - just as Dickens wrote.

In fact, as great as Stewart is as Scrooge, in many ways it's the casting of Grant as Bob that's the real genius of this production. He doesn't look quite as weary as Donald Colthrop in the '35 movie, but he still looks more right for the part certainly than Mervyn Jones. Like David Warner, Grant's Bob possesses reserved humility. Where Warner is stoic, though, Grant is tender - particularly in the scenes with his family, where the heart of this adaptation firmly lies.

Grant has a wonderful rapport with the lovely Saskia Reeves as Mrs. Cratchit. Like Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present, the story itself seems to come to a halt and simply let the Cratchit family Christmas play out, and like Scrooge, I want to stay longer with them. For all the misfires that I can identify elsewhere in this adaptation, the Cratchit Christmas section is pitch perfect. Whenever I find a section of a movie that I just want to go on forever, or to live in, then I've found something to love and it's this passage that endears this TV movie to me.

(I also loved the two party scenes; Old Fezziwig's in the past, and Fred's in the present. I would totally love to be at either of those shindigs.)

A Christmas Carol Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#238/1609)

A Christmas Carol > Clueless --> #238
A Christmas Carol > Far and Away --> #238
A Christmas Carol < Star Wars --> #238
A Christmas Carol > Two-Lane Blacktop --> #238
A Christmas Carol < WereWolf of London --> #252
A Christmas Carol < The Invisible Man (1933) --> #277
A Christmas Carol > Circus of Fear --> #277
A Christmas Carol > Kill Bill Vol. 2 --> #277
A Christmas Carol > The Hunt for Red October --> #277
A Christmas Carol > Mrs. Henderson Presents --> #277
A Christmas Carol > Ratatouille --> #277

A Christmas Carol was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #277/1609