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TV Review: The Harsh and Grotesque ‘A Christmas Carol’ Adds Little to the Beloved Tale

A CHRISTMAS CAROL -- Pictured: Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

The beloved tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge continues the Dickensian influence of Christmas on the world. Since the beginning of filmmaking, variations on “A Christmas Carol” have found their way to screens, both big and small. Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, and Scrooge McDuck have played the famed misanthrope. “A Christmas Carol” remains one of the transcendent pieces of culture that permeates every generation. When Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy announced they would create a new version starring Guy Pearce, expectations grew high. The FX Original Movie hits the beats you’d expect. Yet the embellishments and dark tone make this version unique, and for some, offputting.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
A CHRISTMAS CAROL — Pictured: Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

Director Nick Murphy opens the new version of “A Christmas Carol” on the grave of Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham). As a young man comes up and relieves himself on the grave, the spirit of Marley rustles within his coffin. He cannot truly rest, but finds himself pulled to another dimension. There, he meets The Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis) who says that he cannot find peace until Ebenezer Scrooge (Pearce) feels remorse for his actions.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL — Pictured: Joe Alwyn as Bob Cratchit. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

In the world of the living Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) attends church with his family. His wife Mary (Vinette Robinson) hates Scrooge. His son Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush) wishes to spend time with his father. When at work, Cratchit listens to the ramblings of Scrooge, who seems paranoid with his mind on Marley during this particular night. Scrooge eventually returns home, where he is visited by a crumbling Marley. The former partner warns the miser of the night ahead of him.

The departures taken in this version of “A Christmas Carol” bring an interesting commentary into the story. First, Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”/”See“) expands the use of Mary Cratchit within the story. This will likely create some controversy, as the role Knight uses her for can easily be seen as demeaning. Robinson (who earns best in show honors) is black, and some sequences imply that she utilizes dark spirits to incite the events of the film. Her expanded role creates an interesting perspective within the story, but it also could be seen as problematic.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL — Pictured: Stephen Graham as Jacob Marley. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

Knight further changes the source material by imbuing it with dark storylines. The increased use of Marley opens the story up for their true misdeeds. Center to that point, we see how Marley and Scrooge are responsible for killing more than two dozen mineworkers after cutting safety expenses. The film heavily implies Scrooge’s trauma as a victim of sexual abuse. This abuse turned Scrooge into an abusive man himself, one who uses his power and wealth to manipulate others for his own “social experiments.” This Scrooge finds new depths of depravity, making him the least redeemable of any incarnation of the character.

The choice to make this grittier, profanity using Scrooge gives Pearce plenty of material. He employs a smarminess he reserves for his most despicable characters. Drawing from some of his work in “Prometheus,” this Scrooge does not hide his hatred. That passion comes across his face at every turn. Yet Pearce grounds these moments in emotion, making you believe the choices this Scrooge makes.

A Christmas Carol
(L-R) Martha Griffin (REMMIE MILNER), Mary Cratchit (VINETTE ROBINSON), Bob Cratchit (JOE ALWIN), Tim Cratchit (LENNY RUSH) – (C) FX Networks – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Robinson steals the film despite the dark and negative predicaments she enters. She delivers a mostly teary-eyed turn, but the trauma she works through would crumble anyone. She lifts Alwyn’s performance as well. The two have remarkable chemistry and you’ll hope they reunite again in the future. Alwyn gets to shine early, but as the story drifts into the perspective of Scrooge, he becomes an afterthought behind Robinson’s far more emotional tale.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL — Pictured: Andy Serkis as Ghost of Christmas Past. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

The three-hour runtime makes this one of the more ambitious tellings of the tale to date. While the film does not divide evenly among the three spirits, which could be to its detriment. The majority of the time remains with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis), who gets into the darkest aspects of Scrooge’s past. The reveals provide motivations for Scrooge, but it also means we spend time with a brute, uncaring spirit. Serkis’ turn feels reminiscent of his darker turns, but it also comes off as a pseudo-parody of his acting style.

The toughest, yet most authentic, aspect of the film comes from the lack of color. The drab and bland world of London in the 1840s places you correctly in time. Yet the result can be visually dull for long stretches. The absence of Fizziwig’s party or the vast majority of the Elizabeth plot further declines the opportunities to add the holiday’s warmth.

Knight makes one thing clear from the opening moments of the film: capitalism ruins lives. The pursuit of money and wealth gets a far more focused critique in his version of “A Christmas Carol” than many others. The institutions themselves are questioned, not Scrooge’s follies in a vacuum. Instead, this telling places class divides between the worker and employer at the center of the frame. This adds an extra interesting level to the story but does not necessarily offset the horrid and grotesque visuals we see along the way. These scenes come through as jaws fall to the floor, a mine collapses in an aesthetic reminiscent of terrorist attacks, and even a drowned figure looming over Scrooge. This darkness may drive some viewers away, but for many others, the twisted tale could become a favorite.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL — Pictured: Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

The Knight/Murphy “A Christmas Carol” will likely not become a definitive version of the tale, but it fits the time. As anger and resentment towards the rich grows, there’s been an ever-changing dialogue on who deserves redemption. FX’s “A Christmas Carol” wrestles with that conundrum in interesting ways. The result is an interesting, but dark, take on a beloved tale.

“A Christmas Carol” premieres on FX on December 19th, 2019 at 7:30 PM EST. 

GRADE: (★)

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.

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