AVAILABLE ON: digitally and on VOD on R1, R1 dvd 20th Dec 2014
RUNNING TIME: 82 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On the seventh anniversary of Jacob Marley’s death, his business partner Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean, lonely, Christmas-hating man who has no place in his life for kindness, compassion, charity or benevolence, refuses his nephew Fred’s dinner invitation, and rudely turns away two gentlemen who seek a donation from him to provide a Christmas dinner for the poor. His only “Christmas gift” is allowing his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off with pay – which he does only to keep with social customs. However, that night, he finds unwelcome company in the form of three spirits from Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come, who show him parts of his life….
Charles Dickens’s classic novella of redemption, which probably inspired It’s A Wonderful Life amongst others, has been adapted a huge number of times for the screen, and small wonder, with its ghosts, time travelling, huge amount of drama, social commentary which is as pertinent to today [perhaps more, with the gap between rich and poor ever-widening], and good old uplifting finale which should make most viewers feel very joyful if the version they are watching has done its job. The general consensus, at least amongst critics, seems to be that the 1951 Alistair Sim-starring version is the best, and maybe it is, though my personal preference is for the more recent adaptations starring Bill Murray, and Michael Caine and the Muppets. It’s really one of those tales that can be twisted and changed any different number of ways, because its themes are universal and it’s such a damn good story.
Therefore a new version is usually welcome, and here we have this 2012 production, which was released to view by Guerilla Films worldwide via the Distrify player at 12:01am on 1st January 2012 on the Dickens Fellowship website and a number of other websites and Facebook pages. This was an important date because it was 200 years since the birth of Dickens. It’s now been picked up for distribution in the US through distributor MVD Entertainment on VOD in December 2013 with a US DVD release in December 2014, aptly releasing on both occasions just before Christmas. I’m not sure why it’s taken so long for it to be released more widely, and it doesn’t even yet have a UK DVD release. Versions of this story usually sell well, for goodness sake, however familiar it is. I guess it’s hard for an independent production such as this. I had, prior to viewing this film, not actually heard of its director Jason Figgis, who also photographed, edited and co-produced, but he has actually made three documentaries for TV previously, as well as working with stars Alan Rickman, Richard E. Grant and director Steven Spielberg in previous projects. Figgis has since shot his second feature film Children Of A Darker Dawn (aka Railway Children), a post-apocalyptic variant on The Lord Of The Flies, which has also been picked up for distribution and looks very interesting indeed. Judging by this particular movie, he has a great knack for creating atmosphere and making something out of almost nothing, though truth be told I’m not entirely sure that the approach he’s chosen is the right one in terms of creating a viewing experience.
The main idea seems to be to be as close to the book as possible, without additions or alterations. The fact that nobody is credited with screenplay in the credits for the film is a sure sign that nothing whatsoever has been changed. Figgis obviously also wanted to use as much of Dickens’s writing as possible, and not just the dialogue, so he has Dickens actually narrate a huge amount of the tale. Though there are exceptions [what would some of the great film noirs from the 1940’s be without their narrations, and Terence Malick has turned it into something of an art form], I tend to think that narration is a clumsy device that can take you out of the film. This. A Christmas Carol opens with Dickens walking through his house and then sitting down to tell you the story. This beginning doesn’t really work and for a while after it feels too much like you are being told a story rather than seeing one, no matter the fact that all the spoken words are accompanied by lots of great visuals. After a while though, one gets used to it and eventually I was as sucked in by the story and cared about the characters as I should be by any version of A Christmas Carol, while, in an era where weakly written stuff like the Harry Potter books are hugely popular, it’s nice to hear some truly great literature anyway. It doesn’t overdo the sentimentality and at a quick paced 82 min never outstays its welcome, yet never do you feel something’s missing either or something could be elaborated upon.
The opening titles of beautiful Victorian watercolour paintings and very ominous music, which with is bells and chorale element sounds slightly ‘Christmasy’, but gone ‘wrong’, create a strange mood, both dark and nostalgic, perhaps telling us that this is going to be a different sort of A Christmas Carol than you’re used to watching. Now this is an extremely low budget production but Figgis does the best he can to disguise this with lots of vivid imagery of gloomy skies, figures from Scrooge’s past which we will encounter properly later, and as many techniques as he could afford. He had no money to build Victorian sets, so he combines close-ups of real houses with shots of ruins to create the illusion of a set, although some of the interiors don’t quite convince. The ghost of Scrooge’s dead partner Marley is executed simply by the really old method of projecting an image of somebody onto the screen. It’s as effective as half of the CGI stuff you see these days, and this spirit has a creepy noise, resembling a drawn-out “Boo”, which is quite chilling. The other ghosts are either done in the same manner or, in the case of the Ghost Of Christmas Past, as a young girl with a man’s voice. The location and time travelling is handled simply but smoothly. There is a bit of CGI, such as a door handle which seems to come to life, strengthening the idea that the ghosts he is about to see could just be figments of his own imagination or dreams.
A huge amount of fog enhances the old-school feel to this film which is only held back by the unavoidable obviousness of it being shot digitally. Despite that, there are some fantastic shots, like one of Scrooge in a darkened room with the sunlight streaming in and illuminating the back of his head, or some of the most gorgeous candle lighting I’ve seen in ages. The music score by Michael Richard Plowman and Mara Brennan is almost constant and perhaps little too prevalent in places, especially in the early sections, but it’s an effective and often haunting piece of work anyway. The acting, with a few minor exceptions, is very strong from a little known cast. Vincent Fegan is quite a realistic Scrooge, looking appropriately miserable and always somehow managing to convey, even in his nasty early scenes, that there could be a glimmer of goodness in him. Nice to see hardly any [at least visible] makeup for the character too. Perhaps even stronger is Neill Fleming’s performance as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poorly-treated employee. There is a bit when he gives a virtual monologue and the actor executes it with great emotion. I was very surprised to see such a fine piece of acting, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Who knows what great actors and actresses may be around, doing mainly bit parts in things, just waiting for their break?
This film will never be one of the classic versions of the tale, and as I’ve said before it doesn’t entirely come off, but it’s a decent attempt to go back to basics and is certainly not redundant, while it clearly contains some strong filmmaking skill. Jason Figgis’ other works were commissioned and acquired by broadcasters to run on television, which they did successfully, some for three years. With Figgis continuing to direct feature films, he’s definitely one who’s work I’ll be keeping an eye out for.
A Christmas Carol is available digitally and on VOD on R1.