TV Review – A Christmas Carol (2019)

Your initial reaction to BBC announcing their new A Christmas Carol adaptation may be along the lines of “Oh God, not another one.” But fear not: Tom Hardy, Steven Knight and Ridley Scott have teamed up to produce a refreshing and original version of Charles Dickens classic Victorian tale (as far as an adaptation can be “original”). In collaboration wit FX Productions, this A Christmas Carol puts a dark twist on what audiences have come to know as a warming festive classic. So settle in for an unconventional ghost-train through the Past, Present and Future – not only setting to change the heart of covetous old Scrooge, but society as a whole.

BBC have upped the stakes, putting a sinister spin on what the Muppet’s dub “The season of the heart.” And I don’t just mean with chiaroscuro lighting and creepy ghost make-up – the themes and events are much heavier than we’ve come to know, allegorizing what was likely too taboo for Dickens to publish in the 19th-century. Yes, the overall message of poverty and greed still hangs clear. But this time, with the sombre addition of violence, sexual harassment and child abuse.

Ebeneezer Scrooge himself – sharply performed by Guy Pearce –  is a character of murkier depths than the stingy old businessman Dickens first created. Although this makes it much harder to strike sympathy with our protagonist, his motives for cruelty and coldness are a lot stronger. An almost Freudian layer of complexity is added to our anti-hero through his traumatic childhood, with majority of the three-part mini-series focusing on his Past – a “bright mirror” that he must face in order to heal.

The best part of the BBC series occurs during the build up: the first (and perhaps second) hour-long episodes moving at a steady pace with intricate detail. One of the many differences between this version and the original story is its acute focus on Marley – Scrooges old business partner whose ghost is sent as a warning. Played by Stephen Graham, we are given an almost behind-the-scenes look at what happened after Marley’s death, dwindling away in the fires of purgatory before haunting Scrooge for the chance of redemption. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkins), resembling a sort of demonic Santa Clause, is the primary spirit that we engage with throughout the series. Guiding us through the story like a surrogate narrator, he provides crucial plot information for both us and the characters.

Towards the end of the series, however, the pace picks up. So much so that the ending feels a little rushed. Our last – and most anticipated – ghost, played by Jason Flemyng, barely makes an appearance. And when he does, he gravity of his silence is lost amid a race to the credits. Scrooges return to reality is sudden and anti-climactic. We never see his visit to his nephew, making Fred’s earlier office appearance fairly pointless (bar his foreshadowing of an “old pain”).

Our final few moments are spent with Mary Cratchit (Vinette Robinson), breaking-the-fourth-wall to present a powerful concluding message. Though how and why she controls the spirits is unclear (surely, with this sudden God-like stature, she could have saved Tiny Tim herself?) Overall, it’s not that it felt the first half dragged on, but that the show ran out of air time. Perhaps a five-part series would have been more suited than a tight three-hours.

The smog-filled Victorian streets and shadowy interiors are a familiar sight to those who have seen almost any adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Yet, what may strike audiences most about this version is the dialogue. Rather than bulking out most of the script with direct quotes from the book – “Come in, and know me better man!” – the creators have formed their own dialect for both new and existing scenes. Still spoken with that 19th-century eloquence, the discourse is dotted with emotional monologues, surprisingly humorous one-liners, an occasional Dickens quote and even a couple of swear words.

This rejuvenated script achieves a balance between realism and verse, offering some deadpan comic relief and variation from overused quotations. After all, there’s only so many times one can hear “God Bless us, everyone!” in a single holiday. The only downside to the shows writing is its over-expositional narration. Scrooge is excused for talking aloud when imagining Marley is still sat beside him. But the heavy descriptions leave little room for subtlety or imagination, spoon-feeding the audience information via unnecessary explanations.

When compared to the other (over two dozen) adaptations, this newest A Christmas Carol is certainly one of the most interesting and unique. Rather than having to sit through the same scene made seven different times – one with Muppet’s, another done in musical – we can really engage with the layered, three-dimensional characters. A knockout cast list including Charlotte Riley, Joe Alwyn and Johnny Harris each deliver impeccable performances, with stunning visual effects to truly immerse you in the drama.

Gritty yet sentimental, A Christmas Carol is by no means perfect – and yet, bursting with potential, it still makes a compelling addition to the ever-growing list of Dickensian entertainment. By bringing an old story up to speed with more contemporary issues (or should I say, more acknowledged and spoken about issues), the show is able to move beyond the breadth of simple entertainment, forcing viewers to reflect on the current state of society. As I think Dickens, a known social activist, would agree: “There is still much to do.”

 

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