A Christmas Carol episode 1 review: atmospheric and bleak

The BBC's atmospheric new A Christmas Carol adaptation is dark and despair-filled. Spoilers in our episode one review...

This review contains spoilers.

It’s so cold in Scrooge’s office that he has to melt the ice that has formed on his window to see out, and what he sees is a London street without any Christmas cheer. The freezing, the poor, the downtrodden, are selling cheap wares, selling themselves. These are hard times. There aren’t any beautifully dressed shop windows or an assortment of jolly passers-by in pretty hats. There’s only pain, and despair. It’s a powerful vision of London, and of the younger, tougher Scrooge that dominates this adaptation of a much-loved classic.

It’s up against tough competition to make its mark. Many film versions exist, from the ones that try their hardest to stick to the letter of the story to the ones that reimagine Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser with a hatred of seasonal good wishes, in modern environments. The source material has been through many interpretations, but few would knowingly interfere with the key messages at its heart: the importance of redemption and charity. The writer of this latest version, Steven Knight (the creator of Peaky Blinders, writer and director of Locke), sticks with Victorian London but radically alters the mood and the structure of the original novella right from the beginning of his script in what he has termed, “a timely interpretation of a timeless story.” Scrooge here is more than a skinflint. He has caused the deaths of those that work for him, and he is also guilty of bribery and perjury. Those are the faults we get to know about in episode one, at least; I’m expecting more to appear.

He’s also a philosophizer, of a sort, and there the problems start. A three hour running time gives the writer space to add all sorts of material, and also gives the director (Nick Murphy) the chance to take time over putting it onscreen. The first forty minutes of this version are given over to scenes such as Scrooge talking to himself, to an empty chair, or to poor Bob Cratchit, his clerk, about why he has no time for goodness or charity. We get hints of an expanded backstory, and slow close-ups of his decision to keep a tally of the shouts he hears on the street outside, or how many lumps of coal he will put out for Cratchit. This can be hard going if you’re waiting for some classic Dickens moments.

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Building on the relationship Scrooge has with Cratchit would seem to be a great idea, as traditionally Cratchit has been a less then fleshed-out filmic character. It’s difficult to think of one that hasn’t been overshadowed by the performance of whatever Scrooge he has faced up to (with the possible exception of Kermit T. Frog) but here we have crackling intensity in the animosity between the two men. The dry, sarcastic Scrooge, played by Guy Pearce, narrows his eyes at a tall, self-possessed Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) who loathes his employer. Sometimes the dialogue between them is scathing and almost humorous – “I don’t care for your revolutionary mathematics,” says Scrooge, “It’s not Paris.” But at other times all we’re getting is information that adds very little to our understanding of either character. “Christmas inspires such emotion,” Scrooge muses, at one point, “Good and, it seems, bad.” Such obvious declarations can begin to wear a bit thin when the plot is not moving forward quickly.

Along with these scenes, there’s a further new addition to the classic story in its treatment of Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham). In fact, the adaptation kicks off with Marley in his grave, dead and buried, looking annoyed about the expectation that he’s meant to lie there forever. But after he offers repentance, he escapes the grave to become a ghost and is instructed by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis) to save Scrooge’s soul in order to redeem his own. This expansion of Marley’s role means that we know a little bit more about him – but at what cost? His appearance as a ghost this early on, and the subsequent first appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past relegated to his supporting character, sacrifices their impact at key moments later, and reduces the tension we should feel as Scrooge sits at home in his cold, bleak house, hearing noises he cannot explain, putting spooky happenings down to a bad meal. The foreshadowing of what is to come does no favours to that wonderful, horror-filled early section of the original that has now been bumped to the end of a first episode that takes its time establishing things we already know.

By altering these timings and relationships, it just goes to show what a delicate balance Dickens created. The story starts so small – one miserly man thinking himself alone and above all others – and it expands into past, present and future, and the realization of what his actions costs others, until it bursts into loud, happy celebration. By widening its scope so early on in a deliberately downbeat manner, it’s difficult to see how this version of A Christmas Carol will manage to create that intensely joyous feeling that so many of us love. The focus has changed: Cratchit hates his boss openly, and Cratchit’s wife (Vinette Robinson) holds a dark secret of her own (another expansion upon the original story that feels less than convincing at this stage). The cheery enthusiasm of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, however, has yet to be given much screen time, and that’s a shame because that lightness could well have reminded us of what we what we’re aiming for. It’s difficult, in an onslaught of pain and hurt and even physical injury and gore, to remember that things can, and will, get better. And the story will undoubtedly get darker still before that point, which raises the question – how hard a watch is this going to be?

Possibly this will lead to a magnificently uplifting conclusion as the next two episodes build on the groundwork laid here to give Guy Pearce a chance to prove what a great actor he is by leading us to one of the strongest redemptions of Scrooge we’ve ever seen on screen. There is, after all, so very far for him to go this time, against all the odds in a world so cruel. I’ll certainly watch to see if that happens, but right now, with absolutely no Christmas cheer on show and new additions that skew the balance in favour of darkness, this first episode has been tough going.

A Christmas Carol continues on BBC One on Monday the 23rd and Tuesday the 24th of December at 9pm.

Read about the best and worst adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol here.

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