Right up top, Steven Knight establishes precisely what kind of holiday party his take on “A Christmas Carol” is going to be by showing a teenager cleaning off the lonely headstone belonging to Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham). He does this by urinating on it.
The boy has no way of knowing that, thanks to the magic of Christmas as rendered by Knight, the product of his spiteful micturition would trickle down through the frozen earth and drip right onto Marley’s face. This wakes up the dead man and moves him to bellow, “Why am I not allowed any peace?”
You know the answer to his largely rhetorical question, right? I supposed it’s possible for a person to be unfamiliar with Charles Dickens' classic tale, despite the existence of tens of films and TV movie versions of “A Christmas Carol,” along with countless theatrical productions, Christmas Carol-themed TV episodes, and the many adventures of Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck.
In life, Marley was the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce), the embodiment of indifference, greed, and callousness, and Marley was his match in miserliness and temperament.
To be sure, Victorian England was not the velvet-and-holly dreamland typically seen on holiday cards, or musicals like the 1970 classic "Scrooge," starring Albert Finney. History tells us it was a place with dirty streets and foul air, where the destitute lived in squalor.
Dickens’ 1843 novella contains no descriptions of vengeful postmortem golden showers. However, it does describe the moral requirements every person must meet to find rest in the afterlife, chief being “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.” And apparently get his eyes peed upon in the bargain.
This is about as lighthearted as Knight’s “Christmas Carol” gets – and what I’m describing is basically the coldest of cold opens. Every scene that comes after is markedly chillier and grimmer. There are no optimistic contrasts in mood to Scrooge’s stubborn humbuggery. The Christmas snowfall looks like it might kill you.
Left by the wayside are Scrooge’s life-affirming (for us) and chastening (for him) visits to holiday celebrations. There’s no spirit-guided view of Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas party — no Fezziwig at all, actually. No spying on the convivial dinner to which Scrooge's nephew invites him each year that bitterly he turns down.
Scrooge’s dead sister Lottie (Charlotte Riley) does a second shift as the Ghost of Christmas Present, but she doesn’t appear with a glorious feast or even one shot of wassail, only a visage set with disappointment, because spending Christmas with family can be difficult.
In further proof of this, all vicarious specks of light usually provided by the humble Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn), his wife Mary (Vinette Robinson) and the always-smiling Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush) have been snuffed out.
Between the overuse of dark lens filters, the grinding sorrow hovering over everything, and the spirit-deflating, narrative-defeating addition of a sexual abuse subplot, this “Christmas Carol” is short on joy and very, very, very long on purgatorial slogging.
How long, you might ask? It takes almost an hour for “A Christmas Carol” to get to the point where Marley makes his way over to Scrooge for that fateful visit. You will feel every agonizing moment of those 53 minutes, and it will teach you very little that you don’t already know.
At that point you may also realize that “A Christmas Carol” still has about two hours remaining. And you might wish Knight were nearby so you could grab him by the shoulders and shake him while screaming, “Who hurt you? What did they do to you and why are you taking it out on me?”
Hang in there, or you’ll miss the mouse decapitation.
“A Christmas Carol” takes its bittersweet time to get the ball rolling, I'm guessing, to give its stars every possible opportunity to showcase their ability. Praiseworthy performances not only from Graham, Pearce, who cuts a gaunt figure as Scrooge, and the rest of the impressive cast can only offset the dourness to a point. But since Christmas is supposed to be about uplifting the good in the world, they are worth calling out.
Pearce’s Scrooge defies the classic version of the character as an old man desiccated in body and soul; the actor lends him a patrician chill that somehow makes his horrid nature all the more despicable. “How many ‘Merry Christmases’ are meant, and how many are lies?” Scrooge asks rhetorically, stating aloud his operating philosophy. His version of the character is a relentless analyst fond of treating people and their woes as opportunities to conduct behavioral experiments.
Mary describes him as “a man with an ice pick for a heart,” and her lack of love for her husband's penny-pinching boss finds no contradiction from Bob. And Alwyn pours a heated loathing into Bob Cratchit that grants him a willful perseverance not typically associated with the character. You find no Christmas toasts naming Scrooge the founder of the feast in this script.
We see much more of Bob, and Marley, and Scrooge than is typical or even desirable, mostly because Knight extends moments barely meriting a paragraph into full melodramatic passages to maximize the sadness of it all.
Remember Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Eve walk with Tiny Tim? The one we usually see on posters for theatrical productions? Here we get to see Bob and his wife discuss an errand that requires the walk, then agree they should both go on the walk and take all the children, then the walk itself. Then Bob’s wife takes a detour to have a good cry by herself while Tiny Tim sadly watches the other kids play on an iced-over pond.
Later, director Nick Murphy forces us to witness Scrooge eating in silence, masticating every spoonful . . . to lend context to that the line about the undigested bit of beef, I guess?
We’re given an extended look at Marley’s time in purgatory. We get to watch Andy Serkis’ Ghost of Christmas Past brood and seethe over Scrooge’s intransigent dickishness. We’d invited to enjoy Kayvan Novak as Ali Baba, Scrooge’s invisible best friend who helps him survive his lonely years at boarding school.
“A Christmas Carol” is expansive with opportunities to view acting in action.
This movie also spends more time building Scrooge’s psychological profile in part to explain how men like him come to be so cruel. But I'd wager most people really don’t care why horrible people become that way. What matters is how they’re behaving right now. Dickens knew this, and describes just enough of Scrooge’s sad childhood to make him human, not to make excuses for his lack of charity.
And while this co-production between FX and the BBC refuses to offer the usual simplistic redemptive resolution to the story, it also proves why that ending matters. It may not feel honest, but it is a necessary leavening remedy to a ghost story that ends with a man staring at his own headstone at the end of a lifelong parade of his moral failures. And it's Christmas Day, dammit.
In contrast, Knight botches Scrooge’s attempt to make amends so entirely that the sole reparation effort seen at the very end of his three-hour depression march comes off as creepy, intrusive, pompous, and self-serving.
It also implies, quite queasily, that one of the few major characters of color might have supernatural abilities. (Knight and fellow “Christmas Carol” executive producer Tom Hardy played this card before when they worked together on “Taboo,” and employing it here is even less defensible.)
In theory, I have no quarrel with re-imagining Dickens’ story as – to quote the press material – “a spine-tinging immersion into Scrooge’s dark night of the soul.” ( I do disagree with the spine-tingling part of that description. Back-bowing, maybe. Spine-tingling, not so much.)
By forsaking the jolliness pervading most Hollywood interpretations of Dickens’ story, the “Peaky Blinders” and “Taboo” creator amplifies the central critique of Dickens’ work, calling attention to the disregard with which the wealthy who profited off of the industrial revolution squeezed their workers to death without a care for their well-being.
Not even children were spared in these men’s quests for financial gain and wealth building – and children in Dickens’ oeuvre overall are the avatars of innocence. “A Christmas Carol” is said to be partly fueled by the author’s anger at the inhumane conditions child laborers endured.
In that regard, the most effective scenes force Scrooge to gaze upon the pain he and Marley wrought with his business practices, including a disaster with a ponderous death toll. Showing this hellscape, including bodies blown apart, is part of the reason for the broadcast’s TV-MA rating; the others are warnings of crude and indecent language and “explicit sexual activity” — i.e., that previously referenced sexual exploitation.
“A Christmas Carol” has survived plenty of interpretations in multiple arenas, and theoretically this approach could have worked, given the economic similarities between the capitalist failings of Dickens’ era and those of the modern age. That is, it might have been successful had it included enough optimism to countervail all the misery.
But Knight unwisely and a bit heartlessly chooses to forgo that kindness to sink us into the bleak of it all, and does so during the darkest days of the year. Life’s doing a fine job of that already, and we need another version of that prompt about as much as we need this dispiriting adaptation.
"A Christmas Carol" premieres on Thursday, Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m. on FX.