This review contains spoilers.
After Marley’s stark warning, the visits to Scrooge begin with the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past. He spirits Scrooge back through to his childhood and then through his career with Marley to highlight the events that have shaped the man. Not only do we learn about Scrooge’s childhood, but we also bear witness to the crimes that garnered his fortune and his long-standing connection to the Cratchit family.
Director Nick Murphy frames the story beautifully and indeed the direction and the production design are certainly the second episode’s strongest elements. Wide shots find Scrooge in isolation, a lost figure in the sparseness of his own home. The Gothic splendour, cloaked in shadow with brief glimpses of light, give it the proper Victorian ghost story feeling that reflects Dickens’ story. When the action opens up in the past, the contrast is sharp. Everything is suddenly bathed in cold winter sunshine, revealing the truth of the situation, before the dark slowly closes in again as Scrooge gets older.
It’s not the only sharp contrast occurring at the moment of Scrooge being flung back into his past. The Ghost of Christmas Past transforms into Ali Baba and offers Scrooge a camel to ride. After the relentless bleak atmosphere of the first episode and the opening of the second, the sudden surrealism and humour jars spectacularly before snapping back to sombre when it is implied that Scrooge’s headmaster was abusing him. And as in the first episode, everything in the interactions between Ali Baba/Christmas Past and Scrooge feel drawn out, but this time with an extra dash of tonal whiplash to stir the pot.
Inflating Marley’s role adds another layer of commentary that the story doesn’t really need. Marley is a symbol of what Scrooge could become, a role in which he functions perfectly in both the novella and previous adaptations. Tying his fate to Scrooge’s in this adaptation increases the stakes, for sure, but the battle for one man’s soul is compelling enough. The battle for two feels like filler. The writing across the board remains the problem. It’s as if Steven Knight doesn’t trust the audience with Scrooge, nor does he trust Dickens’ text with providing enough reasoning for Scrooge’s character or his redemption.
And so we get the expansions of his story; the abuse he suffered, the bad business practices that led to the deaths of employees, and bribing officials to ignore it. That’s without including key characters from Scrooge’s past. Gone is Belle, the fiancee he neglected in favour of work. Gone is Fezziwig too, a man who was both boss and father figure to Scrooge. Dickens uses these characters to illustrate Scrooge’s isolation and rejection of human contact in favour of money. Scrooge hardens over time to become the man the spirits are trying to change. Knight’s Scrooge arrives a fully formed skinflint and lacks depth as a result.It’s easy to see the point that Knight is making regarding Scrooge’s profit-hungry attitude and the parallels it draws to our contemporary society in which the rich exploit the poor. It is a point hammered home to the point of feeling like the episode is bludgeoning the audience with a rock engraved with “Themes.” One incredibly literal example of this is in Scrooge’s interactions with Sally Cratchit. In this, Knight tries to out-bleak Dickens in a way that feels arrogant; everything is too extreme, too dark, and too concentrated in misery. Most of all, it makes Scrooge seem irredeemable, negating the point of its own story.
To end on a positive, it must be said that Guy Pearce makes a very compelling Scrooge even in the middle of an overstuffed, diversionary episode. His drawn, pale face and hunched figure show Scrooge as a broken man propped up by malice. When facing the trauma of his childhood, he slips back into a boyish mode that feels like a natural regression from the man Scrooge is now. Scrooge talking to himself is also an interesting device that, when performed by Pearce, shows a man so lonely and isolated that he must talk to himself because there is no one else he can tolerate a conversation with.
The first two episodes have drawn out the story so much that the pacing already feels somewhat imbalanced. With the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future to come, assuming Knight sticks to that part of the narrative, as well as the expected, if seemingly impossible redemption, there is a lot left for the last episode to get through.
Read Aliya’s review of the previous episode here. And read about the best and worst adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol here.