Retro-Review: A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart


By Robert Gillis

There have been countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” over the last century. One of my favorite Christmas traditions is to watch several of them. This is one of my favorites…

Version: 1999 (TNT)

Scrooge: Patrick Stewart

Cast: Richard E. Grant (Bob Cratchit), Joel Grey (The Ghost of Christmas Past), Ian McNeice (Albert Fezziwig), Saskia Reeves (Mrs. Cratchit), Desmond Barrit (The Ghost of Christmas Present), Bernard Lloyd (Marley’s Ghost), Dominic West (Fred ), Liz Smith (Mrs. Dilber), Kenny Doughty (Young Scrooge), Laura Fraser (Belle), Rosie Wiggins (Fran ), Tom Towndrow (Peter Cratchit), Claire Slater (Martha Cratchit), Ben Tibber (Tiny Tim), Tim Potter (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come)

The star: For over a decade, Patrick Stewart has performed a critically acclaimed one-man reading/performance of A Christmas Carol. Despite hearing the baritone voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Stewart personifies Scrooge — his interpretation of the character is never a cliché but a believable man whose life and pursuit of wealth has made him cold … Stewart is just such a great actor — English stage performer, a trained Shakespearian player and master of the stage. He brings a depth and great believability to Scrooge. (Patrick Stewart was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for his 1999 portrayal as Scrooge in this movie)

The Good: The entire movie is VERY faithful to the original story.

Patrick Stewart dominates every scene he’s in — you can’t take your eyes off him. He is AMAZING.

The look on Scrooge’s face when he sees Fan (called Fran in this interpretation) is very moving — it is so very obvious how much he adored his little sister. The simple gesture of Fran placing her head on her brother’s shoulder as they ride home exemplifies this love beautifully.

Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle (Laura Fraser) is absolutely beautiful and in her first appearance, she is demure and so lovely, and obviously so in love with Scrooge, and they kiss tenderly.

In the scene where Belle later breaks her engagement with young Scrooge, old Scrooge yells at his past self, begging him to go after her, to talk to her, to make it work. In some ways, he’s getting a preview of what Jacob Marley must feel — he’s a spirit, desperate to assist a soul in need but unable to do so.

Tiny Tim is well cast; many versions of the story show Tim as sickly; this film simply portrays him as a normal-looking little boy who happens to be a cripple. The later scenes of Tim, laying dead in the bedroom is VERY powerful.

I really liked that the scenes where Christmas Present and Scrooge travel the world — to a lighthouse, a ship, a jail, a coal mine, where each location’s denizens are singing Christmas carols. Faithful to the original story, these poignant scenes aren’t included in many adaptations and make the film feel bigger than it is.

I like the way Stewart plays Scrooge as not immediately being converted — at the point in the story where Scrooge is telling the Ghost of Christmas present that he will go willingly because the lesson from last night is working even now, Stewart’s Scrooge tells the spirit, “Let’s get this over with,” and even in the future Scrooge is pleased to see the exchanges and talks about his love of profit. This flip-flopping makes Scrooge’s transformation more gradual and believable.

An excellent actor, Patrick Stewart often adds small gestures that go a long way. You see Scrooge tapping his foot to the dancing at Fezziwig’s, and in the previous scene, as he sees his young self and Dick Wilkins bolt to shutter the shop, Scrooge takes a moment to look over the legers his younger self was writing, and nods with approval at the work.

Liberties with the story (all good): The film opens with the somber funeral procession of Jacob Marley. No crowd of mourners — just Scrooge walking behind the hearse-carriage, and signing the death register.

Later, when the two gentleman approach Scrooge for a donation to the poor, Scrooge comments, “I take it you gentlemen are new to the district.”

I absolutely love the scene where Scrooge goes into church: The amusing moment where the usher is quietly trying to show Scrooge to remove his hat, and the beautiful moment where he steps into the pew but can’t remember the words to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” The man next to him shares his prayer book, and within a moment the words come flooding back as Ebenezer joyfully sings the carol.

The scene where Scrooge tells Bob he’s about to raise his salary and help his family is priceless — Scrooge goes to embrace his clark, and Cratchit grabs the fireplace poker to fend him off — it’s hysterical and very in character.

The scene at the end, where Scrooge is enjoying a roaring fire in his home, dressed in his finest, and invites the Cratchit family into his home for dinner — beautiful.

The Not-So-Good: The film does look a bit too much like a “TV movie” at times; the shots are a little too static in places (although that may have been the intent — to make this look more like a stage play) and sometimes the sets look a little too much like a studio back lot and aren’t as rich as other interpretations of the story.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is played by Desmond Barrit, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Certainly an accomplished actor, but his performance here is frankly not very compelling — his Ghost of Christmas Present just seems a little too subdued for my taste. In stage productions and other versions the Ghost of Present is larger than life, laughing, boisterous, but Barrit’s ghost is a little too laid back. While the dialogue is dead on, this ghost just doesn’t seem all that interested in the job he has to do — think of it as a worker “phoning in” an assignment. This ghost seems bored in his scenes and it just doesn’t work — The ghosts are here for a purpose, and this ghost doesn’t seem to interested in the task. When he sits down at the Crtachit house, he seems tired.

The use of language is updated a bit too much; part of the charm of an old story is to tell it in the language of the time, so when a line like “You’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation” is changed to ” … losing your job,” well, I just don’t like it. Two other examples: The famous exchange when Scrooge asks the boy to go buy the turkey: “Walk-Er!” / “No, I’m in Earnest!” replaced with “Your joshing.” “No, no, no.” And when Scrooge sends the turkey to Bob: “He shant know who sent it,” has been changed to, “He won’t know who it’s from.” The original prose is pure poetry; keep the dialog the way Dickens wrote it (although for the most part they do).

Finally, it’s not a bad thing, just kept bugging me. The Ghost of Christmas Part (Joel Gray) is perfectly cast and believable in the role (and true to the original
story as well) but his face is so heavily made up in white makeup that I kept comparing him to Data in Star Trek. Every now and then I thought Scrooge would turn to the ghost and say, “Mr. Data, exit Holodeck.”

Special Effects: As Jacob Marley departs, Scrooge looks out his window to see hundreds of glowing spirits trying (and failing) to help people. It’s a powerful image. The huge funnel cloud that carries the Ghost of Christmas present and Scrooge is a great effect. The lighthouse they visit looks a little fake. The scenes of Scrooge walking through walls are well done. The image of Christmas Present and Scrooge atop the coal mine is iconic. The glow around Ghost of the Past is very well done and a nice touch. The image of Scrooge falling atop his own dead bosy and plunging into the abyss is powerful.

Summary: A terrific film shot on a TV budget but still capturing the essence of the classic story, expanding the tale in interesting ways, and the most perfect casting of Scrooge, ever. A must for Christmas.

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