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Blogvent Day 16 – A Christmas Carol (1999,USA)

16/12/2011

Director: David Hugh Jones       Starring: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Dominic West

Okay, I’ll admit it, I have a mild obsession with A Christmas Carol. To my mind it is the ultimate Christmas story, a wonderful treatise on the fragility of the human condition, a plaintiff call to human beings to treat each other a little better and to set aside the superficial, materialistic desires that leave us fettered in chains of our own making while we profit at the expense of others. Clearly there are lots of other people who agree with me as it is a story that has been adapted for the screen countless times and with varying success and I have spent a lot of time watching different cinematic versions of the story in an effort to find one which could be considered the best, the ultimate rendition of Dickens’ tale in film form.

This 1999 TV movie version, somewhat surprisingly, comes pretty close to being able to claim that accolade. Starring Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer, this is among the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen with great pains being taken to preserve much of the wonderful language Dickens laid down in his novel and without the corruption of the lost love sub plot that occurs in some other versions of the story.

Stewart’s turn as Scrooge is really quite remarkable. It has a slightly different feel to it than most of the depictions of the character. There is a more measured meanness about him that seems to be the result of a cold, defensive pragmatism rather than any genuine malice (much more in keeping with Scrooge as he seems in the book) which quickly turns to grief, despair and ultimately joy as he experiences his “reclamation” at the hands of the visiting spirits. Stewart’s inarguable gravitas really adds an air of authority to his performance. You really believe his transformation from cold defensiveness to raw, unbridled emotion. There is a particularly great moment when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning, after the visitations from the spirits and lets out a laugh, his first in many years and as theatrical as it may be Stewart’s approach, with the laughter arising from a long forgotten place amid the wheezing, deathly moaning of vocal cords long unaccustomed to laughter, is a joy to behold. It’s roles like this that make you wonder why he isn’t in more films.

The rest of the cast are pretty good too. Dominic “McNulty” West is great as Scrooge’s nephew and antithesis Fred and Richard E. Grant puts in a suitably impoverished turn as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s put upon clerk. The Ghosts are well cast too. I particularly like Marley’s ghost in this version. Bernard Lloyd does a great job of conveying Marley’s despair at his inability to atone for a squandered life and injects the part with just the right amount of horror as he tries to impress on Scrooge the urgent requirement for change. Unfortunately the casting takes a turn for the worse when it comes to the kids, Tiny Tim being especially annoying which seems to be a common fault in most of the different versions of the story.

Of all the ghosts, the Ghost Of Christmas Present is probably my favourite in the story. He certainly gets to make some of the best points. It’s he who gets to throw Scrooge’s comments about the surplus population hurrying up and dying back at him when he is despairing the fate of Tiny Tim, a vital part of his transformation (“Oh God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!” he proclaims to Scrooge at this point. What a line!) It’s a well played sequence in this version. Interestingly they have endeavoured to keep the segment where the GOCP takes Scrooge on a tour of the country to show how all people of all walks of life and hardened existences all come together to celebrate Christmas. Sadly, this is one of the bits that let this film down as it comes across as a bit schamltzy and cheesey and the special effects utilised are something of a let down, although this is not altogether surprising given its TV movie pedigree. I’m certainly prepared to put up with it in exchange for the rest of the detail that has been retained from the book.

I sometimes wish I could compile a composite Christmas Carol film using the best bits from all the different versions. If I was to do so I would probably use this version as the basis for it as it is probably the most complete I have ever seen. Granted, some things are handled better in other versions (I love Edward Woodward’s performance as the Ghost Of Christmas Present in the 1984 George C. Scott version for example, which this film seems to reference but not equal) but this is worth it for Patrick Stewart’s near definitive performance as Ebenezer Scrooge alone. Perfect it is not but it’s bloody close.

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