December 14, 2015

A Christmas Carol [1999]

Patrick Stewart is terrific as Scrooge. The most famous scene, where Scrooge harangues his nephew Fred (Dominic West!) might be the best interpretation I've ever seen, and quite faithful to the book. I watched it twice! Stewart manages the emotional arc well, and by the end of the book, comes across as just the right level of crazy, but then reins it in when he nervously visits Fred's Christmas meal and asks to be welcomed in. Gently handled!
Dominic West is a treat as the irrepressible Fred. Richard E. Grant leans a little too heavy on the pathos as Bob Cratchit and loses some of the Christmas joy; Mrs Cratchit is played by Saskia Reeves, whom my wife has seen in every UK movie and TV show of the last 15 years; As Scrooge's fiancee, Laura Fraser nails her big scene, breaking up with Scrooge on a park bench in the snow. My wife pointed out the scene felt torn from a Jane Austen novel. The Ghost Of Christmas Present was a little less jolly and a little more dour and judging than I'm used to.
Joel Grey is simply weird as The Ghost Of Christmas Past: the character is usually portrayed as a fairy or a young girl, not a 67-year-old man in chalky whiteface. Then I checked the source material and Dickens spends 326 words describing the ghost:
It was a strange figure -- like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child's proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.
This surreal imagery implies that Scrooge was creating these visions out of a dream state: most of the movies present the Ghosts as an external force, when it seems the ghosts are not sharing with Scrooge anything he doesn't already know about himself.
I definitely recommend this adaptation! Stewart was strong, the supporting cast was mostly solid; the script included scenes from the book which rarely or never appear in adaptations. Besides Grey's distracting presence, the only other major drawback is the occasional overuse of 1990s computer effects.