A Christmas Carol (2019)
A Darker Direction


Guy Pearce | © FX Networks

"The only thing...the only thing I want the spirits to do, the only change I want them to make...is to spare the life of him."

UPDATE, 12/31/2019 - I thought I was done writing about A Christmas Carol, at least until summer, but apparently it was not done with me. There were a few more things on my mind during the week after seeing this affecting miniseries. That's how I know this was great; it won't let me go. It mainly stems from comments I've seen that it was both too long in parts and not long enough in others, making it feel both overstuffed and rushed. I didn't feel at all that way and I kind of ramble on about it.

UPDATE 2, 1/20/20 - I really thought the last time I wrote about this was going to be the last time, but it's nearing the end of January and I'm still thinking about it. That's due to the exceptional talent of Guy Pearce. This one performance shows me he's an equal to Andrew Lincoln or Robert Downey Jr. Funny, because I was floored by him in Memento long before I knew either of the other two. Since then I only remember him from Iron Man 3. IMDb tells me there were a few smaller parts that I forgot about, like the opening minutes of The Hurt Locker, where things didn't go so well for him. There was also Jack Irish, a series he starred in, which I now realize I had started watching somewhere before it became unavailable. I'll have to use my Amazon Christmas gift card for that. So, in all these years, because he wasn't regularly appearing in things I watched, his talent faded from my mind. A Christmas Carol has changed that. Even if Pearce never does anything else, there are very few who can convincingly convey real emotion, and I won't let that fade again.

The Ghost of Christmas Future got his claws in me and isn’t letting go until I write this, my actual work and Christmas preparations be dammed, apparently. I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything all day. At least, in doing this, I get a few thoughts out about this engrossing miniseries just in time, instead of being my usual weeks and months and years later, irrelevant self.

Listed as a single episode on Hulu for whatever reason, I watched all three parts on Sunday night and well into Monday morning. I’m normally a night owl, but I had a lot to do on Christmas Eve Eve and going to bed at 3 a.m. was not planned. Guy Pearce’s performance was just so compelling that I kept hitting that rewind button on certain scenes, and it was never on my mind to stop once I'd started.

A dozen steps in a darker direction makes this adaptation a deep dive into one broken man who doesn’t even realize how broken he is; who goes about every day being miserable without recognizing his own misery; whose only pleasure is the fleeting joy of wealth; who goes home alone every night to be greeted by cold, empty rooms, reflections of the cold, empty chambers inside his chest. A deeply wounded man who built a wall around himself at far too young an age and for an appalling, but all too plausible reason. These deeper wounds help to temper our disgust over the insensitivity we see in the history of his greedy misdeeds; his crueler than usual backstory not excusing him but explaining him. I'm very glad I stayed up for this on a whim.

Merry and bright tales at this time of year are expected and I certainly appreciate them, but more than that, I want to see a performance that grabs me and never lets go. So, I tend to lean towards a drama like this, where the path back to the light is emotionally fraught, steeped in performances, and the payoff is great. It’s also a treat to experience a different version of something I’ve known and loved most of my life. I may be hide-when-I'm-home-alone-and-someone-knocks-on-the-door shy, but I don't shy from anyone attempting to bring their own ideas into the mix. It gives me more to savor about my favorite Christmas story.

Guy Pearce | © FX Networks

From the mind of writer Steven Knight; the vision of director Nick Murphy; and with an excellent cast, including Andy Serkis as a caustic Ghost of Christmas Past, who doesn't care a whit about Scrooge but welcomes the challenge; the Ghost of Christmas Present, someone who very much cares what happens to "Ebbie"; and Stephen Graham as a funny Jacob Marley, whose ultimate fate is tied up with his former partner. Rounding out the cast of the living, there's Vinette Robinson as a very wronged Mary Cratchit, who has a bigger and far different role than I expected; Joe Alwyn as Bob Cratchit, who has to deal with Scrooge every day and is nearly at the end of his rope; and Lenny Rush as sweet Tiny Tim, who is one of the strongest catalysts in Scrooge's transformation.

Then, of course, there's Ebenezer himself, who has retreated into callousness and indifference, but who is often betrayed by his own eyes, his own face, who harbors a hurt too large to be anything other than left unsaid, avoided like the plague. Cold, icy, calloused, scarred, hard, made of stone, walled off. All words to describe the same sorrowful, beautiful thing: a broken heart. Words that I use throughout to express the touching intimacy of what Guy Pearce put on the screen. He did a fabulous job with Scrooge; not a wrong note, every emotion laid bare. It's a captivating performance.

This Scrooge has very deep wounds, and it took him quite a while to come to grips with himself and the fact that he needed love and kindness for others. It wasn't so simple as showing him his lonely childhood, his lost love, and the embittered man he had become. His path to redemption was paved with unquantifiable selfishness. He saw people only in terms of profit and loss. It was a longer, harder road to get him to that place where he could recognize his sins for what they were and be truly sorry for them rather than feeling sorry only for himself.

"Given the time again, I would not be myself."

There is a lot that has been changed here, but Scrooge is still recognizable for the bad-tempered miser he is. With the additions and changes to his backstory, he has even more reason to be the way he is. For sure it's not for everyone, though. Some really, really don't like it. I am the founding member of the other camp, loving it for digging deep and presenting something startling and new in the depiction of such a well-known character.

Faced with his past, there is a tender place always just under the surface, that place the Ghost of Christmas Past was searching for but could not find. Though some viewers might find this version of Scrooge a bit too despicable at times, I clearly saw a man never far removed from his pain. Despising him, even as he is moving through this harrowing replay of his life and being slowly changed for the better, even as we see his childhood torn from him and are made to understand why this Ebenezer is such a Scrooge, is not the lesson to learn here.

We're not supposed to like him for what he's done or let his excuses be a defense. We're supposed to hear in his words the wounds that he has sustained to make him see all people as merely beasts, to see in his reactions the scared child he once was and tortured man he's become, to have sympathy for someone whose rotten-to-the-core father did not protect and love him but truly hated him, to hold close the child whose innocence was stolen by another man who was supposed to teach him. All these moments in Scrooge's past adding up to a much larger part of the story than I'm used to was a very welcome change that I never knew I wanted.

Guy Pearce | © FX Networks

If you had never seen any version of A Christmas Carol before, you would think Ebenezer Scrooge's heart holds less warmth than the depths of winter. Here you'll quickly find that there's more to him than being a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner." You'll find this is a man who will surprise you with his emotional depth even as you are shown the depths of his greed. You'll learn he's been hurt too much and has hidden any tenderness from the world. His actions of his past were horrible, but he is also pitiable. From the first small crack in his icy armor, when nephew Fred reveals that his mother asked him to be patient with his uncle, we see something in Scrooge other than malice. Vulnerability and longing were written all over his face. He did his best, but he couldn't conceal those feelings for his sister, Lottie. A very old anguish is still fresh in his mind even as he tries to bury it.

Pearce did a lot in that small moment. It may have looked like a non-reaction, but the way he tensed and tried to ignore the comment showed that he was hurt by hearing those words, letting us see early on that Ebenezer is never far removed from his pain. He tried not to react, pretended to work, shuffling his papers, looking only at them not at Fred for fear of letting him see the pain on his face, and that alone said volumes. Later we see a soft spot for animals, which was a nice touch that showed a glimpse of who he had been before we're shown the tempest of his father's rage and the terrible "lessons" and cycle of abuse that came from him.

Johnny Harris and Guy Pearce | © FX Networks

"A gift is just a debt! Unwritten but implied!"
—Ebenezer's father

That rage is a new one. They sure went all-out on the uncaring father side of things. We all know the basic details of his wound: his sister died, his father held no love for him, and he lost the love of his life in his pursuit of money. This retelling takes those miseries and amplifies them, allowing them to fester inside and damage him more than any other Scrooge, turning him into the "human beast." A beast that he so despises in everyone else he sees but never in himself until his "human heart" is finally fully opened in the end. Every horror he'd seen and done put in front of him to take in one after another, contrasted with an act of love he could never appreciate before, confronted with seeing people as having value outside of profit for the first time, until a simple "bag of gravel" spread over an icy pond became his first act of kindness. It's a lot for one man to take in so suddenly and why it felt right that so much more time was spent trying to pry him open with the memories of his past.

Those who thought it was overly long and/or spent too much time with the Ghost of Christmas Past I fear may not care enough about going in-depth with a character, that they don't appreciate the opportunity to watch a performance filled with nuance and vulnerability. I would hope that's not the case and they would give it another chance at least for Pearce and truly pay attention to the way he breathes life into a character who gave up on it long ago. This extra time, and some fresh ideas of what emotionally crippling events could have made a man like Scrooge, did a great deal to expose a vast swath of pain suffered and inflicted. As such, his transformation is more gradual and more real, and it now feels vital in the telling, less glossed over.

"Is this an experiment? To see if you can wring blood from my heart?"
"No. I show you this scene to comfort you."

Scrooge's present day, even when not with the Ghost of Christmas Present herself, also got a good chunk of screen time to deal with the people who were in his life now that he had treated so badly. So, no, it was not lopsided or rushed in the end, did not give too much time to his past. It gave a better balance to the story, gave more insight into the character, and gave Pearce incredible material to shape into an ultimately lovely performance.

It's not a fault that they spent more time on this Scrooge’s past, because the past of a middle-aged man is naturally longer than his present; it's where he was forged. That the spirits didn't get a more equal share of him only increased my affection for this version. It felt right giving so much of it over to reopening old wounds inflicted upon Ebenezer and those he in turn inflicted upon others, soothing those wounds and reawakening the Scrooge that should have been, stripping away the last of his contempt for others and justifications for his actions just before the last spirit.

The Ghost of Christmas Future needed only to show Ebenezer the bleak future waiting for him if the previous spirits weren't able to get through. The same as any other Ghost of Christmas Future, this one's part was to drive home the point and make sure Ebenezer had no more excuses and that the lessons shook the walls around his heart to gravel. It was an important part, but not one that required nearly as much time, as most of the work had been done already. Even before the first spirit made himself known, we were witness to Scrooge's thoughts of a regret so raw that it was in his nightmares. If any viewer was unfamiliar with this character, they still would have understood in that moment that he was capable of change.

Michael Caine | © Jim Henson Prod. & Walt Disney Studios ("It is the season of the heart...")

Guy Pearce | © FX Networks

"Yes. I do have a heart. I am ready for whatever you wish to show me."

This was the moment I had been waiting for. Scrooge was always going to change, but I wondered how touching it might be. Turns out it's like they knew exactly what I wanted. This Christmas Carol may be largely unlike Muppet Christmas Carol, which I grew up with and adore, but this similarity between the two was lovely. The moment a spirit touched Ebenezer's chest, a familiar rhythm beating faster and harder than it likely had in decades, reaffirming what matters, was one of Pearce's finest scenes. There are few immeasurably talented actors, who can really connect with the material and character in a way that completely draws you in, who show us their own beating heart. If that sounds a bit strange, then you have yet to experience it, but there is an enormous difference between actors who give everything and those who are just repeating lines.

I hit rewind a couple dozen times on this scene, and more the next night, for Pearce's pitch-perfect reaction - the gulp, clenched jaw, and shuddering breath of a man both unaccustomed to being in the presence of terrifying spirits and letting anyone near the heart he's viciously protected and buried for so long. It's sort of strangely compassionate yet startling introduction to the Ghost of Christmas Future for sure. This Future has a face and is humanly-proportioned, but he's still a disturbing, disquietingly calm and silent type who has no qualms about shoving you into a wall if you're being willfully stubborn.

It was more unsettling from there, as Future let Scrooge witness Tim drown, then took him to the cemetery some years later where he found his own grave and that of Tim. This is where he finally dropped all of his excuses and just wanted to save a little boy. It didn't take long, just minutes to get through the last of his defenses. It's not because it was overstuffed in the beginning and rushed in the end due to time constraints. It's because his defenses were almost all torn down by then, crumbled bit by bit by all he'd been made to remember.

"If redemption were to result in some kind of forgiveness, I don't want it. Because I would find a way to justify everything I have done according to the consequence. 'Cause that's who I am."

There aren't many warm and fuzzies to be had here until well into the third act, but you need to understand Scrooge before you get to the payoff, to take in his sorrowful life before the final turn. This is a man who admitted aloud that one of his old wounds was barely healed, who has nightmares every night, constantly tortured by his past. He was a terrified broken child, turned a cold, broken man who rationalizes everything away. He can feel but not for long as he rejects those feelings. He is still following the harrowing, horrible lessons taught by his father all these years later.

It takes some convincing for him to break through the cruelty done to him and to take the blame for his own. Pearce's portrayal of Scrooge from the start felt like he was yearning for a connection even while pushing everyone away; when he gives Bob an extra lump of coal, it was the first gesture that shows he might not be completely lost and could change if only someone knew how to help him. Every time, he chose the safety of detachment, the cruelty of his father never fading from memory. It feels almost monumental when all the push and pull finally gives way to a pull at his heartstrings.

Guy Pearce and Lenny Rush | © FX Networks

"This is what happens when someone finally understands...is made to understand...what it is to be human."

Scrooge is a man who learned to live and thrive in misery; it's all he could do as a child to survive his tyrant of a father. He then spent his entire life being that same scared little boy, hiding behind a mask of ruthlessness to protect himself from the world and further abuse, not even knowing that's what he was doing. His realization in the end is particularly powerful, finally understanding and reaching for the connection every person needs. And so this moment, his first genuine smile in a very long time, breaking out during a sweet interaction with Tim, is worth the wait. I argue that it's all worth the wait for every moment with Guy Pearce, because he genuinely put his heart into it. There is a depth of feeling that permeates it as a result.

This Scrooge had further to go than others to escape the torments of his past, still fresh in his ever-obsessed and calculating mind. He fought every step of the way against what the spirits were showing him, losing ground each time, more and more half-heartedly objecting. But the humanity that once beat in his chest showed life time after time whether he wanted it or not. His ultimate joy at finally feeling something more than indifference or contempt for a fellow human being is contagious. The empathy taken from him by his circumstances returning in full force.

Sadly, Scrooge most definitely will never be a friend to the Cratchits, not after what he did to Mary. There will be no gathering around the table for a family dinner, no being a second father to Tim. Still, that rings true for this depiction and the result is richer than I had expected. Impressively, I found a greater appreciation for what Scrooge experienced, for him to still be able to turn around and see the good in life, to dig himself out of his depression and open himself to others again after a lifetime. It's worth that trade-off. He believed he could never repent enough to make up for the sins he committed and he didn't expect or want forgiveness. He vowed only to move on and live for the future with his defrosted and renewed, loving and thankful heart.

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