Few things make me happier at this time of year than the chance to enjoy a new take on A Christmas Carol. From the defining portrait by Sim to the powerhouse that is Stewart, through to the regrettable Palance (Ebenezer; it’s awful), I’ve seen a lot of adaptations. Yet when I looked over the press release for A Christmas Carol, I shuddered. Firstly, the email promo begins with ‘Scrooge Saves Christmas…’. No he doesn’t! Christmas saves Scrooge. Literally. I had awful images of Ebenezer strapping on an ammo belt, kicking down a door, and shouting “this one’s for St Nick!” as bullets filled the air. But I kept reading. It was described as a mix of danced action and spoken narration. I still wasn’t sold. But nonetheless I dived in.
We start by watching what is clearly a family tradition; the telling of the tale by the grandmother while two children recreate her words using a paper and card theatre. There is a young child, a sister, now old enough to understand the story and so, like us, it’s her first time enjoying this.
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The initial conceit, that of using a paper toy theatre, works on so many levels. It allows the filmmakers to use images in a style that conjures up memories of old, Victorian etched illustrations, going so far as to have the famous John Leech picture, ‘The Second of The Three Spirits’, less than two minutes in. These familiar images create a sense of nostalgia straight away, and so before anything has begun we’re already seduced by the ‘Christmassy’ feel of it all. This carries through once we begin watching. We watch the characters ‘awaken’ as we’re transported inside this world of paper and card, one of narration and imagination. This draws you in, as does the continued use of period-style illustrations
Another touch I rather enjoyed is the occasional use of what I imagine are excerpts from newspapers or periodicals of the time, commenting on the plight of the poor. It’s easy to forget, in a heady haze of mince pies and port as we sing along with Michael Caine and Miss Piggy, that Dickens’ writing and Dickens himself were forces for social reform. Not here. Instead we are continually reminded that unless you had some money in your pockets, a traditional Victorian Christmas was a pretty grim affair. It’s hard not to imagine that directors Jacqui Morris and David Morris – David also adapted the book – are using this production as another way of highlighting the inequality between those who will be enjoying Christmas this year and others, far less fortunate, who live very close by.
Of course there is the merger of spoken word and dance. The grandmother, played by Siân Phillips, narrates the book, whilst the characters’ spoken lines are voiced by various actors. There are some household names to choose from, including Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, and Carey Mulligan. Scrooge himself is voiced by the always excellent Simon Russell Beale.
Whilst the voice cast do their job excellently, I was far more interested in what the actors dancing the roles would do. The work was choreographed by Russell Maliphant, who has created something beautiful, sensual, and not exactly what you’re thinking of when I say ‘dance’. The closest we come to a big ‘number’ is during Marley’s visit. Scrooge’s former partner, portrayed on screen by Maliphant, leads Scrooge to the window where he watches the spirits unable to intervene in the woes of the world.
There is an odd, ghostly, choreographed movement that doesn’t feel out of place, and is, for want of a better word, haunting to watch. But I was worried. Would this be a sign of things to come? Song and dance numbers all over the place? No, what we have instead is non-verbal communication. Pure and expressive. Even the Fezziwig’s ball was handled with a light touch. This could easily have become an overly choreographed nightmare, but instead, when these professionals are portraying people actually dancing, we see slightly awkward, yet totally relaxed people enjoying a Christmas party. I was impressed.
Personally, I’m always excited to see what happens with the spirits. And here, having dancers portray these otherworldly apparitions creates an alien nature that is spectacular, and just not possible with a regular actor. Cast your mind back to Guinness’ Marley in Scrooge and you’ll see what I mean. Each one is unique and transfixing, and the clever, subtle use of effects merged with that glorious physicality have created some of the most impressive spirits I’ve seen on screen. The only issue is in Mikey Boat’s Ghost of Christmas Present. Despite clearly being a great dancer, his facial expressions and movements stray rather too close to pantomime for a medium where we have close ups.
There are a few other niggling flaws, mostly from technical – and possibly budgetary – issues. One example is that classic moment where Marley’s face appears in the doorknocker. Here it starts well enough but then lurchers into something that looks as though it’s from an early 2000s TV show, snapping us out of the world they’ve created. I was also confused by some of the choices. Changing ‘I shall retire to Bedlam’ to ‘madhouse’ does make sense for a modern audience, but then why on earth keep the smoking bishop?
However, the issues are small and few, and are far outweighed by the wonderful attention to detail and thought that have gone into this film. From a clockwork mouse being used to remind us that this is a story being told by children, to a truly wonderful score by Alex Baranowski, this is a very worthy entry to the Christmas Carol canon. I have no doubt that this brave and original telling of A Christmas Carol will become a perennial favourite.
A Christmas Carol releases in cinemas and select theatres from 4th December.