Movie Review: A Christmas Carol (1999)

Posted: December 13, 2009 in Holiday, Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A Christmas Carol (1999 TNT Dir. David Hugh Jones)


Even at Christmas, pimping just ain’t easy. (it’s now a running gag, deal with it!)

Here we are at the Patrick Stewart version of Dickens’ tale, presented on the TNT cable network in 1999. It’s the newest version of this story that I have in my collection and one of the most accurate actually. That last sentence might seem odd when I mention something in the next paragraph, but bear with me. As far as following the story, and the special effects, this is probably the most accurate representation that you can find. So why does this version usually leave me cold?


Scrooge likes to watch.

Some have speculated that it’s the updating of the language that does it. The story’s words were changed from the formal Victorian talk to a more modern set of words. They mean the same thing, but if you can recite the story in full it does cause you to hit snags. That’s not it for me though. Some have said that it’s the fact that about half the performances feel phoned in. I’m not sure about that really. Everyone seems to be doing their best, but the performances seem to fall flat. However you could blame that on the mushy editing or the director or possibly just say that it’s made for TV and what do you want from them. Also, as much as Patrick Stewart might be a great stage actor, I’ve never really felt he was good on the screen. He’s either too wooden or playing to the back of the theater, and that’s not a good combination. I have to admit that I find his performance to be the weakest in the entire show, it just comes off as a single note and lack nuance.


“You’re ad said older man seeks ghost for hot action.”

The Effects are mostly good, but have an unevenness that harms them. I’ll get to the specific effects problems when they come up. There is also a bit of inconstancy with the lighting. Sometimes it looks like their going for a Barry Lyndonesque all natural lighting look, and sometimes the sets are lit like a TV stage. This makes it very obvious when they’re on set and when they’re at a location, and adds to the uneven quality. However, even that’s not the real problem here as far as I can tell.


Domestic life on a Victorian TV set.

No I think the main problem is the source of this movie. Now, hang on, let me finish before you start waving pitchforks and threatening to kill me. The source material for this movie is only sort of the book. It’s really based on Patrick Stewart’s one man play. The problem there is that some of the scenes just don’t fit properly when there are other actors for him to play against. Some of the speeches come off as being badly out of character. There are problems with basing the story on a one man show. Many side speeches are given to Scrooge which are almost like Shakespearean soliloquies. There is also the re-written quality in which many lines were modernized to make them fit in a more current lexicon. Sadly, instead of strengthening the show as for the most part it makes the show a shade uneven.


“Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women!”

Let’s assume though, that it doesn’t cause you trouble. Let us assume that you’ve read the book but haven’t really spent much time watching every other version of the story ever made. How does it stack up against the book? Well, as my review will show, surprisingly well really. Most the points on that check list I’ve been asking you to keep are represented here. I only stressed the weaknesses because I’ve often been troubled by the fact that I don’t like this version better. I should, like it fine because it is one of the more accurate versions of the story out there even if it is made for TV. It’s actually shot in England, and during the winter, with an English cast that seems to actually care about their work. The production values, sets, props, clothes, and locations are almost impeccable and could have only been expanded by giving the show a feature film budget.


He should have known better than to even ask for that.

Let’s begin the story though shall we? We start the movie at Marley’s Funeral, and the passage of time is shown through a series of dissolves in which the sign over the counting house grows progressively more rusted and faded. Cratchit looks the part well, he’s sufficiently timid and thin looking. Actually I think this is the best screen Bob Cratchit I’ve seen, or at least the most sympathetic. The whole coal and fire question is passed fairly quickly, without the loving care that the George C. Scott version gave that scene. Then we have Fred, and a heavily re-written version of his conversation with his Uncle. Then we have the conversation about Bob only making 15 of his namesake a week with a wife and family yet talking about a Merry Christmas. The two charitable gentlemen then come, the caroling children, and the conversation about wanting the whole day tomorrow. Many other versions of the story would have introduced Tiny Tim by now, but this version saves his first appearance for the place where he arrives in the book.


Old Joe, always pimpin’

Marley’s appearance at the doorknocker goes as planned and I notice that this DVD version manages to do something many versions don’t. I remember that it’s while Scrooge is staring at the knocker that the program broke for commercial. If you don’t know that though, you wouldn’t be aware of it. They avoided or deleted the bits of fading or the just too long pauses where the cut would come. Instead the program on the DVD flows as a full fledged 94 minute movie. There are some good effects with the tiles where some of the faces are replaced by Marley’s face and Marley himself is presented fairly well.


Jacob Marley, always in fashion!

He’s transparent as he should be, dressed all in faded gray and because he’s being shot on a greenscreen away from everyone else they could put a wind machine on him that doesn’t affect the rest of the scene. The actor playing Marley has the proper mixture of sorrow and anger, making for strong pathos. Unfortunately, the knotted cloth around his doesn’t get removed until he’s already spoken a bit. Sadly this is one of Stewart’s weakest bits of performance, and the way it’s edited doesn’t help. Some of the dialogue is rushed, making a weak performance worse. They do however go a rare and awesome step, showing the dead sinners flying around London in sorrow. They make attempts to interfere for good, but being dead they have lost the power to do so and can only observe the pains around them. Dickens was something of a radical liberal if you’ve never noticed.


“They shut down the power to the containment unit!”

I think the reason this story is done on TV so much is that the book itself provides several natural break points. You can have a commercial right after Marley leaves, and another after each ghost. If needed you can slot one or two else where in the story, but there are at least 5 natural points for commercial breaks (assuming you put one right after the credit sequence) where you don’t have to leave the action as it happens. As it happens there is such a break here and I’m going to go grab a can of pop. (ahh, cool refreshing unnamed soda pop!)


Your ad said…

So Christmas past shows up and we start getting the worst of the inconsistent effects in the show. In some shots, he’s got a sort of photo-shopped white haze like glow that surrounds him, and in other shots he doesn’t have it. The problem is that it’ll be glowing in one shot, then cut to another shot and he doesn’t have it and then cut back to the first shot and he does have it again. The spirit does look right though, he’s mostly dressed properly, and he looks like a ghost to me. Scrooge as a school boy is done right, and the school is clearly as cold as it’s supposed to be since you can see the actor’s breath. Who ever the location scout on this film was did a wonderful job. Fran the sister is done right (could swear her name is Fan though), and they do mention she died young which not all versions do. Fezziwig isn’t just done right, he’s done to near perfection played with joy and mischief. The party is fun, but just slightly over long, but that’s okay. Belle is done right, and she’s played by an actress who is truly as cute as a button. You really feel her heartbreak when she dumps Scrooge. Sadly the scene of Belle and her 87 children isn’t included in this version, but we do get to see Scrooge whack the Ghost of the past. So it’s got that going for it. There is actually kind of a sudden break, which is where a commercial would go, but you could argue this break would exist even if this were just a feature film so I’ll let it pass.


First shot, he glows


The VERY NEXT SHOT he doesn’t.

The Ghost of Christmas Present isn’t as impressive as I would like. The feast around him when he first appears seems to consist of little more than a Hickory Farms sampler pack. I like a good, loud, boisterous Spirit of the Present. I like one that laughs heartily and then tells Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him the next moment. Frankly, I like Present to be about 15 seconds from cracking one way or the other. Sadly this isn’t that Spirit. He comes off as someone who’s just not into it today. As a result the heavy handedness of this section falls down flat. This is really the part of the story that needs deft execution as Dickens wasn’t even trying to be a little subtle in this part. I rarely like the Cratchit Family Christmas part of the story, but this one is pretty good. The house at least looks like the house of a poor clark instead of looking nicer than my house. I actually find these Cratchits to be the charming and kindly people that they’re supposed to be. Sadly, this in contrasted by the Ghost chiding Scrooge for his surplus population crack and it just doesn’t work. He just can’t manage the enthusiasm to tell Scrooge what a bastard he is. It’s like he’s on Zoloft and feel neither highs nor lows now.


Now that I’ve got my pills, I’m not crazy anymore!

In an interesting turn, the Ghost takes Scrooge to a light house, a ship, and Welsh coal pit to see how Christmas gets everywhere even if you use bleach. This is straight out the book, but almost never shown in adaptations. We’re then taken to Fred’s and see his upper-middle class friends. This is part of Dickens heavy hand, we’re supposed to be instructed how to celebrate Christmas depending on our social station. We end up staying too long at Fred’s for my liking, but then me and the whole yuppie thing never got on anyway. We then see Christmas in a prison before we have the Ignorance and Want scene.


Awww, why do I have to be the whining wanker?

It’s then that we are treated with the ghost of the future, which is the worst effects job of all. They’ve made him (or her) about 9 foot tall, but it’s clear that this is just a 6 foot tall actor wearing an appliance. As a result, the hand seems to emanate from the Ghost’s waist. For the check list we have the men at the stock exchange talking about the recently dead man. Old Joe’s Pawnshop is done amazingly well, featuring actors who would be fantastic fifteen minutes after death. We then see the dead man being discussed on his death bed and Scrooge not having the courage to look at the dead man’s face. We then get to see another rare piece of the story where a struggling family is given a chance to get out from under due to that man’s death. After that we see the Cratchit household and how it’s affected by Tim’s death, Tim is also shown dead in his bed which is slightly unusual. It’s actually a well done bit and you do feel for Bob when he breaks down over his son. After that we just have the graveyard scene left and it makes no sense because he never asks to know the name of the dead man which is why the ghost takes him to see the head stone. He only asks after seeing the stone and it doesn’t work. The break down just isn’t there either, it just sort of fails. Then he falls into his grave and clutches his own dead body and I just sort of look at the cat and ask what the hell is supposed to be going on.


You always meet the strangest people up alleys.

Then we finally have the Scrooge makes amends scene, but it’s just as flat and empty as the rest of this show has been. Watching him fake a heart attack which turns into peels of laughter just makes me uncomfortable. We get the bit where he tells the kid of buy the bird, then he walks the streets, goes to church, and finally ends up drunk and naked at Fred’s house. Okay, not drunk and naked, but think of how cool it would have been that way. Instead he hangs out outside Fred’s house for a few moments looking nervous before going to the door. That bit works. His nervousness works greatly in this scene, it’s the first time I believe him in this roll. We then have the whole double your salary bit and the end narration given by Fred as it often is.


The worst part about on-line singles meetings is waiting for that 14 year-old-boy to show up.

I have great trouble recommending this, although I will if you have the last two we did as well. The weaknesses nearly drown it, but it has its moments. Really I think it would bother me less if the rest of the effort were slipshod, but since it comes so close to being great, the bits that are lousy stick out even more. So much really great effort from both the actors and the crew is spoiled by a few crappy moments and one actor who wasn’t up to the needs of main part on the screen.


You want comedy? I’ll show you comedy, pull my finger!
Official Score:
25 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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