UK TV review: A Christmas Carol (2019)
Ivan Radford | On 22, Dec 2019
“There’s still work to be done…”
Tidings of comfort and joy are nowhere to be found in BBC One’s A Christmas Carol, a three-part adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic that places the emphasis firmly on the festive words “bleak” and “midwinter”.
A triptych retelling Dickens’ tale of three ghosts visiting Ebenezer Scrooge overnight to convince him to change his ways sounds like a neat fit, but Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) eschews seasonal tradition and storytelling convention from the opening frame of his reimagining, which doesn’t even begin the familiar cycle of past, present and future spirits until we’re well into the three hours – things are haunting enough already, thank you very much.
Guy Pearce is superbly cast as Ebenezer, bringing a youthful confidence to the part – at least, comparatively speaking, given the old miser we’re used to seeing. Pearce’s Scrooge, perhaps for the first time on screen, has an arrogance and bitterness that fuels his dislike for humanity – he’s the kind of person who argues pedantically about the exact date of Jesus’ birth, before counting the profits from his investments firm that he ran with his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. Pearce’s blank indifference to his nephew teases some source of discomfort and resentment, as the expanded runtime gives us a chance to dwell on the specifics of this chilling existence.
Marley, most notably, is given more depth than you’d expect, as Stephen Graham effectively takes a co-leading role. We first see him practically rolling in his urine-speckled grave, before glimpsing him in a fiery purgatory that’s less A Christmas Carol and more Dante’s Inferno. Graham manages to balance mortal terror and a sincere desire for redemption with an immediate humanity and a lived-in chemistry with his old friend. With his soul’s fate tied to that of Scrooge, it’s an effective way to bring to life the horrifying stakes at hand, while also giving us someone relatively more sympathetic to root for.
There are other souls at play, including Joe Alwyn’s timid Bob Cratchit and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchitt, whose fates are bound in a more calculable way to a generous benefactor from afar – a reminder of the power that money carries on this earthly plane. Indeed, visions of a grim society where resources have been stripped back are some of the most disturbing things put on screen here.
There’s certainly competition for that title, as Episodes 2 and 3 peel back the complicated history between Mary and Scrooge – a reveal that risks going too far in its efforts to demonstrate Scrooge’s lack of soul. That absence, meanwhile, is traced back to Ebenezer’s childhood, with a unsettling new spin on the schoolboy days we usually see, guided by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis). Serkis’ imperious turn gets the lion’s share of the runtime, which leaves the Ghost of Christmas Present (an astutely chosen Charlotte Riley, who introduces the concept of compassion and love to Ebenezer’s grey universe) and the Ghost of Christmas Future (a chilling Jason Flemyng) feeling rather rushed come the finale. But the way that Scrooge’s journey is trapped in the past is no mistake, and Knight does an powerful of conveying the challenge of moving on from historical trauma to something approaching forgiveness – and yet Pearce’s Scrooge aptly avoids that “f” word, bringing a more realistic, gradual transformation to the eventually reformed man, one that’s rooted in moral consequence.
Throughout, Nick Murphy (The Awakening, Save Me) directs with the kind of savvy and style that has made him one of the smartest British helmers around; he has a knack for making the period setting feel contemporary on multiple levels, matching the impeccable production design with naturalistic line deliveries and a mix of heated reds and icy blues that’s accompanied by a soundtrack of constant crow calls and door creaks (and a hint of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network). Put the kids to sleep and prepare to quake: a seasonal bedtime story for adults-only, this boldly rendered night of the soul is long and dark, and even in the bleached light of the morning, there’s still work to be done.
A Christmas Carol is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2020.