'A Christmas Carol': TV Review

Robert Viglasky/FX
Definitely not for kids. Probably not for grown-ups, either.
12/19/2019

FX and Steven Knight's adults-only take on the Charles Dickens holiday classic plays up the psychological profile of Guy Pearce's Ebenezer Scrooge.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is one of the more adapted texts in the English language and the primary instinct for those bringing the novella to the screen has generally been to make it as broad and family-friendly as possible. Some of the spookier elements from the Dickens original can be left in provided you balance the frights with a Mickey Mouse, a Mister Magoo or a cavalcade of Muppets.

There have certainly been attempts at gritty and dark interpretations of the Dickens text, but few as random and gratuitous as Steven Knight brings to the table in his new take for FX and BBC. Finally, we have a Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge can bellow "Fuck!!!" several times for limited reason and where viewers can be exposed to one fleeting — not prurient, mind you — bare rump, as FX endeavors finally to put the "ass" in "Christmass."

The result is that FX has made a Christmas Carol that very much isn't for children — seriously, the wee ones will be either bored or scandalized — and probably isn't really for adults either. At its very best, it's an attempted in-depth character study of Scrooge, one that meshes very poorly with the inspiring structure of the story, while at its worst it's an ill-paced, ill-focused version of A Christmas Carol that doesn't even get up to the arrival of Jacob Marley until over an hour into its three-hour running time. At least FX is airing A Christmas Carol all at once. On BBC One, it's airing over three nights, and I'm betting the lack of incident in the first hour will lead to ample tune-out.

To remind the under-rock dwellers, A Christmas Carol is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce), a miser so grouchy and detesting of the Yuletide spirit that he forces poor, earnest Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) to work through to 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, much to the chagrin of Bob's wife, Mary (Vinette Robinson), and some assortment of children including struggling wee Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush).

After "Bah Humbug"-ing his way through the buildup to the holiday, complete with rebuffing various alms-seekers and whatnot, Scrooge is visited first by his deceased business partner Marley (Stephen Graham) and then by a trio of ghosts (Andy Serkis, Charlotte Riley and Jason Flemyng) bent on helping him see the error of his ways and change for the better.

In any form, A Christmas Carol is a referendum on Ebenezer Scrooge and also on the redemptive powers of the holiday season. To reread the novella now is, if I'm being honest, to often ponder if Scrooge is really all that bad. Yeah, he's not a good boss. No, he's not an altruistic part of his community. Sure, you'd probably want to avoid hosting him at seasonal gatherings. But does Ebenezer Scrooge really suck in exceptional ways? Or is he just a sad proto-Grinch?

Knight's approach — owing much to the gloomy, mumbly world he previously brought FX in Taboo — is to dramatically amplify the exceptional ways in which Scrooge sucks. Always a blighted avatar for Industrial Age capitalism, his sins have been enhanced here. With Knight magnifying some details from the text and creating many more on his own, Scrooge and Marley are now Victorian profiteers with colonialist aspirations and the literal blood on their hands is copious. That's before you get to the psychosexual games this Ebenezer plays, a perhaps unnecessary twist that transforms this into A Christmas Carol: SVU (Scrooge Victims Unit).

Knight aims to balance the expanded roster of sins with a very rudimentary psychological backstory — those holidays spent at boarding school are no longer treated as sad exclusively in their loneliness. But he can't conquer how strange A Christmas Carol feels if you have a Scrooge whose misdeeds absolutely can't be ameliorated by a couple spectral visits and one or two acts of Christmas cheer. Knight actually knows this and Scrooge even knows this, which isn't the same as knowing what to offer as an alternative if the story is supposed to reach a satisfying end.

Knight and director Nick Murphy have some good visual ideas when it comes to depicting the London of 1843 and to capturing certain of the fantastical elements in the story. I quite liked the treatment of Purgatory as a wintry forest, one where Marley — given more screen time and yet no more character than in most versions — and the Ghost of Christmas Past (Serkis) interact. I also liked the expanded profile for Ali Baba, formerly just Scrooge's childhood literary escape, now literalized as a figure more important than several of the ghosts.

The ghosts generally aren't treated with much interest here, because once you don't get Marley until over an hour in and once Christmas Past (and Ali Baba) get almost another hour themselves, the story is closer to its end than its beginning, another thing that renders the ending rushed and unconvincing.

Pearce is a solid piece of casting as this chilly, manipulative take on Scrooge, icily playing into your "Maybe he's not so bad" hopes until each revelation expands the character's awfulness. Graham is blustery fun as Marley and I wished he'd had more to do. Alwyn is dull and decent as Cratchit, matching the unremarkable character from the original, though he feels much more present here, draining the story of momentum whenever we're returned to him. None of the ghosts makes much of a performance-based impression.

If there's a real hero to Knight's approach, it's Mary Cratchit, and Robinson has several of the movie's best acting moments. I can make an argument that what Knight has decided to do with Mary both enhances the critique of class and colonialism in the text and introduces a problematic (not necessarily uninteresting) racial angle the movie is in no way equipped to explore, but that's a different conversation.

It's a different conversation that I doubt anybody other than TV critics on assignment will be around to have. FX's A Christmas Carol is designed to alienate the Dickens brand's traditional core audience and probably won't much engage the curiosity of more mature viewers. Having watched to the conclusion, I'm pretty sure we aren't witnessing the premiere of a new holiday tradition.

Cast: Guy Pearce, Andy Serkis, Stephen Graham, Joe Alwyn, Vinette Robinson, Jason Flemyng, Kayvan Novak, Lenny Rush
Creator: Steven Knight, from the novella by Charles Dickens
Director: Nick Murphy
Premieres: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET/PT (FX)