In the 1988 dark comedy Scrooged, cold-hearted TV exec Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is about to unveil a live-broadcast adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But the mean-spirited Frank doesn’t want a quaint, cutesy commercial for the show. He wants something dark and gritty, so he cuts his own trailer which features a parade of nightmarish imagery: acid rain, international terrorism, drug addictions, freeway killers. When watching the newest, and darkest, incarnation of A Christmas Carol, directed by Nick Murphy and written by Steven Knight, you start to get the impression that someone took one look at that fake Scrooge commercial and decided to make it a reality. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted to the screen countless times before, so as this new take arrives, it brings with it the question: Do we really need another Christmas Carol? Another question: Is there anything new to do with this material? As it turns out, there is. In the hands of Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, Dickens’ tale of learning the true meaning of the holiday spirit has morphed into something altogether different. Yes, the familiar beats are there. Mean miser Scrooge is visited by three spirits (well, four, counting his old pal Jacob Marley) on Christmas. Scrooge gets glimpses of his past, present, and future. Scrooge’s long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit is worried about his sickly son Tiny Tim. And so on.
But Knight’s script takes the raw materials of Dickens’ story and works it into something new, giving us brand new scenes and situations that open up the tale. Purists will likely shudder at the liberties Knight has taken here, but they shouldn’t be. There’s something thrilling about seeing a story you know by heart go in new directions. That’s not to say the new Christmas Carol is perfect. At times it goes to such extreme lengths to be dark and brooding that it begins to border on parody. And really, did this story need all the characters saying “fuck” frequently? Probably not. But the production design is appropriately spooky and ominious, and the specters that haunt Scrooge all have their own unique, scary style. The atmosphere alone – full of dark days, long nights, and swirling snow – is enough to hook you.
Guy Pearce stars as Ebenezer Scrooge here, and despite a few liver spots and his silvery hair, he’s a much younger Scrooge than we’re used to. That’s by design – Knight wanted his version of Scrooge to still have plenty of time left to amend for his sins. But oh, what sins they are. In Dickens’ story, Scrooge is a mean-spirited cheapskate. In this Carol, he’s a full-blown monster. His past has a literal body count – as the owner of a mining operation, Scrooge cut corners, resulting in a Christmas Eve mine collapse that killed several workers. Then there was a fire at another property he owned. It’s not pretty. At times, the new Christmas Carol makes Scrooge feel like BoJack Horseman – a terribly flawed character who has done some truly heinous things. Sure, by the story’s end, Scrooge wants to change his ways (spoiler alert, I guess?), but the question lingers: does he deserve to change?
Pearce’s take on the character is recognizable but also somehow fresh. He has all of Scrooge’s bah-humbug energy, but also shows glimmers of someone wounded. Scrooge’s youth was plagued with problems, but like BoJack, Christmas Carol isn’t trying to say past trauma is an excuse for being a complete asshole. And every time Scrooge tries to bargain with his ghostly visitors by throwing this info in their face, they shoot him down. He needs to accept his flaws, not make excuses for them. Easier said than done.
A Christmas Carol also opens things up by making Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley (a belligerent, bewildered Stephen Graham) a more active participant. Marley doesn’t just pop-up once covered in chains – he actually has stakes in the matter of Scrooge’s salvation, and the film keeps returning to poor Marley as he shuffles around in some sort of afterlife hellscape that looks like the world’s scariest Christmas tree lot.
One by one, the spirts pay Scrooge a visit. Andy Serkis makes for a snarling, grisly Ghost of Christmas Past, wearing a crown of thorns and sporting a milky eye. Charlotte Riley is a much more understanding Ghost of Christmas Present. And Jason Flemyng, adorned with a stitched-up mouth and a costume borrowed from the Babadook’s closet, is appropriately scary as the Ghost of Christmas Future.
Those hoping to get into the Christmas spirit and come away feeling warm inside, touched by the power of kindness, might want to avoid A Christmas Carol. But viewers craving something a little extra chilly this holiday season are in for a nasty treat. A Christmas Carol eventually gets to its “God bless us, everyone!” moment (although that line actually isn’t uttered), but before it arrives, it takes a trip through holiday hell.
A Christmas Carol premieres on FX Thursday, December 19 at 7:30 pm.
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