'A Christmas Carol': Film Review

A Christmas Carol
Frith Street Films
Technically impressive but dramatically flat.

Carey Mulligan, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya and Andy Serkis lend their voices to this semi-animated version of the classic Dickens ghost story.

Christmas Eve in Victorian London. While the poor shiver in snowy streets, a phantom menace stalks the fancy homes of the rich and shameless. Who you gonna call? Charles Dickens, of course, whose ghostbusting 1843 novella A Christmas Carol has been adapted, updated, rebooted and lovingly spoofed more than any other festive holiday classic. At least 70 big- and small-screen versions have been filmed to date alongside countless stage productions, operas, ballets, radio plays and graphic novels.

Billed as a "radical retelling," this new artisan twist on A Christmas Carol from British writer-director duo Jacqui and David Morris is certainly formally inventive, blurring the genre lines between live-action drama, animation and ballet. But after a heavyweight screen legacy that includes George C. Scott, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Jim Carrey, Mickey Mouse, Michael Caine and the Muppets, does the world need yet another outing for miserly grinch Ebenezer Scrooge and his spooky home invasions?

Impressively, the Morris siblings have secured a stellar vocal cast for A Christmas Carol, one that includes Martin Freeman, Carey Mulligan, Daniel Kaluuya and Andy Serkis. Even so, there are flaws at the heart of their treatment that no amount of gold-star acting talent can remedy. The packaging may be lightly experimental and the color-blind casting is a pleasingly modern touch, but the film's underlying aesthetic is still stifled by stuffy traditionalism, with bloodless performances and a voiceover narration that incorporates hefty chunks of undiluted Dickens text. Opening in U.K. cinemas this week, this lukewarm Christmas pudding is unlikely to enter the hallowed pantheon of canonical Dickens movies.

A lot of work has gone into the film's striking look, a multimedia blend of Gothic Victoriana and Expressionist design that is inescapably indebted to Tim Burton in places. As a conceptually fuzzy framing device, we the viewers are notionally witnessing 19th century children staging a version of the Scrooge story inside a cardboard-cutout toy theater, with their grandmother (Sian Phillips) providing narration. Plastered with vintage illustrations and news stories from the era, the visual backdrop is a pointedly artificial stage set, an intriguingly Brechtian distancing device that more ambitious filmmakers might have exploited further.

Heavily choreographed and close to pure dance at times, the performances are the most radical element in A Christmas Carol, but also the most problematic. While the physical roles are mostly handled by dancers who never speak, their dialogue is delivered offscreen by the vocal cast. Hence Scrooge is voiced by the venerable Shakespearean stage actor Simon Russell Beale but embodied onscreen by Michael Nunn; Scrooge's long-lost love, Belle, is spoken by Mulligan but played by Grace Jabbari; Bob Cratchit's voice belongs to Martin Freeman but his face is that of Brekke Fagerlund Karl; and so on. Serkis, Kaluuya and screen legend Leslie Caron voice Scrooge's ghostly visitors.

While these dual performances are stylistically interesting, they also feel stilted and alienating, dampening the story's emotional force and social-justice message. Which is ironic, because director Jacqui Morris and her screenwriter brother, David, take unusual care to stress the squalor, poverty, street violence and exploitative sex work of Dickensian London with more conscientious fidelity to their source material than many previous adaptions. But sadly their stylized treatment undermines these worthy intentions, sacrificing gritty realism to theatrical artifice.

A slight scare before Christmas, this tame Tim Burton-lite tale also falls flat as supernatural ghost story, never quite mustering the terrifying sense of mortal dread and moral jeopardy that shake Scrooge to his senses in the book. Alex Baranowski's syrupy, twinkly score does little to alleviate this sense of muted drawing-room restraint. For all its high-caliber talent, A Christmas Carol ultimately feels like peering into a dusty Victorian music box: beautifully crafted but a mostly mechanical, lifeless experience.

Production company: Frith Street Films
Cast: Sian Phillips, Michael Nunn, Carey Mulligan, Simon Russell Beale, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Leslie Caron
Director: Jacqui Morris
Screenwriter: David Morris, from the novella by Charles Dickens
Producers: Jacqui Morris, David Morris
Cinematographer: Michael Wood
Editor: Gary Forrester
Production designer: Darko Petrovic
Art director: David Kharaishvili
Costume designer: Aneta Kharaishvili, Stevie Stewart
Music: Alex Baranowski

95 minutes