A Christmas Carol (2019) 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

One of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time, Charles Dickens' tiny novella about Ebenezer Scrooge has appeared in various forms over the years. From radio plays to annual theatre productions to the dozens of films and miniseries devoted to the redemption of its anti-hero, his themes of forgiveness and Christmas cheer live on in our hearts. Until now.

In a snow-laden graveyard, a young man pees on Jacob Marley's headstone. It drips down through the dirt to rouse his ghost (Stephen Graham), who complains that if his headstone says "rest in peace," he should be allowed to do just that. Instead, he must wander through Purgatory -- an endless void of lost toys and broken things, in a snowy landscape, where he comes upon The Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis). The sinister ghost tells him that because he and his partner, Scrooge, committed atrocities together in life, so too are they bound in death. If he cannot get Scrooge to repent this Christmas, both of them will forever wander in Purgatory, unable to find peace. Though Marley doubts he can arouse remorse in his friend, he agrees to try.

A bitter philosopher whose ideas about humans and their depravities can be somewhat unorthodox, Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce) greets the arrival of Christmas with his usual resentment. Why choose one day to pretend to be nice to each other, he muses, when you could just be honest, and choose one day to be cruel to each other? Why not have one day a year where people tell each other the truth, and what they really think of each other?

His under-paid, over-worked employee, Bob Crachett (Joe Alwyn) thinks him in a "strange mood today." After dickering over whether Bob has to stay until four o'clock on Christmas Eve, Scrooge lets him go home early and returns to his house. But strange things start happening. Two black horses, hooked to a sleigh, stand outside his house, with no master in sight. He could swear he saw Marley's face as his door knocker. And he doesn't feel alone in his empty mansion...

There are two ways to look at this three-hour miniseries. One is as an absolute desecration of what Dickens intended, re-imagined with secular values and modern morals, that reaches the conclusion that some people are just so wicked, they get whatever is coming to them in the afterlife. At the risk of massive spoilers, that's what this film is mostly about -- a man who cannot be redeemed, and who refuses to be redeemed. This Scrooge, at the end, feels he deserves to rot in a urine-soaked grave for all eternity. He never discovers the joy of Christmas, because all the ghosts are sinister creeps and even the happiness of the Cratchett's "Present" Christmas is ruined by them talking about him. The script makes him such a rotten soul, other than simple Christian charity, there's no reason to root for his redemption. Dickens wrote him as a man who, despite having a kind family and good friends and a loving fiancée, became hardened and money-addicted. This Scrooge was molested as a child, had his only pet murdered by his father in a rage, and sexually preys on Mrs. Cratchett as an "experiment." There is no forgiveness for him. Instead of overjoyed at his sudden generosity and the abundance of goodwill, the raise, and the gifts he lavishes on the Cratchett family, Scrooge appears to be drunk and "quite mad."

If you like the original, and its redemptive themes, you will probably hate this. And that's where the "other way to look at it comes in." I went in, having heard all of that and expecting to hate it, and... I didn't. Steven Knight, who is best known for Taboo and Peakly Blinders, specializes in anti-heroes you don't just hate, but feel absolute contempt toward. So, his Scrooge is despicable. And had bad things done to him. And all of this transpires with a brilliant script, full of sardonic humor, genuine terror, and overall creepiness. Some of his changes, such as the ability of those with "strong enough feelings" to see Scrooge in the room, are brilliant. Scrooge's monologues about good and evil, the nature of mankind, and his bitterness toward the world, are memorable. Some lines fill the screen with poetry (and unfortunately, f-words. In Victorian England.) Guy Pearce is so good, I felt his pain as an adult, forced to face his childhood abuse. For the first time, Tiny Tim is played by an actor with a disability. Lenny Rush is wonderful in the role. But he never cries out "God bless us, every one!" because... why would anyone in this version believe in God?

I felt disappointed by it, because it's obvious Knight doesn't understand A Christmas Carol. In his eagerness to make it darker, and more gritty, and to preach a moral lesson that goes with the #MeToo movement, he abandoned the things that make Dickens' story deep. What we are left with is a dark, melancholy, depressing, and often profane ghost story about the horrors humans inflict on each other. And that's just not very cheering at Christmas.

Sexual Content
Scrooge's past includes sexual abuse -- his father forces him to stay at his boarding school over Christmas, in order to service the religious headmaster. (We see nothing, but dialogue and implications leave the audience in no doubt, and it comes up later in conversation.) Scrooge implies that he will trade money for sex to Mrs. Cratchett, so she can afford hr son's life-saving operation. He forces her to say aloud the terms ("intercourse for money") and then lets her undress before he tells her he has no interest in her, sexually. The camera sees her naked backside.
 
Language:
A dozen f-words, along with scattered British profanities.
 
Violence:
Marley loses his jaw, and Scrooge picks it up and then drops it in horror, before his friend screws it back onto his head. Scrooge's father cuts the head off his pet mouse (we see this in shadows / a silhouette on a wall, soon spattered with its blood). Scrooge throws that same mouse, brought back as a spirit, out the window into the snow. He witnesses a boy drown on his ceiling, as the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him a death. He flashes back into a burning inferno, to see the people destroyed in his factories; and into a mine, which collapses and buries people and horses alive. He sees a memorial to the horses outside a church. He cowers from the ghosts and from his abusive father.

Other:
A boy urinates twice on headstones. The only religious person in the story is a child molester. Mrs. Cratchett says she will pray for Scrooge's soul, that spirits will torment him, implying she is using some sort of Voodoo magic on him. The Ghosts come in various creepy forms, including a half-blind man wearing a crown of thorns (a mocking reference to Christ?) and a man with his mouth sewn shut.