'A Christmas Carol' (2020) Film Review: Staging Scrooge's Soul Search
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Though probably blasphemous to many of you, I can proudly proclaim that Christmas here at JG Review starts in November – that is, I’m afraid, if the publication of this review is a valid kind of calendrical indication. I’m kicking off the festive season, you see, with an exciting review of an up-and-coming flick that’s hoping to help out British cinemas this yuletide. A Christmas Carol offers movie-goers with yet another take on Charles Dickens’ beloved tale, and co-directors David and Jacqui Morris have approached it with the clear desire to revere and reinvigorate. The result of their efforts is a film which seems to defy categorization; A Christmas Carol feels simultaneously like a breath of fresh air and a characteristically classical affair.
You see, Morris and Morris clearly devised this adaptation with the intention of presenting it as a play. What I mean by this, is that the design and cinematography in A Christmas Carol seems to more closely resemble the output of the ‘National Theatre Live’ project than of typical, conformist cinema. Where the ‘National Theatre Live’ films typically stumble, though, A Christmas Carol shines. Plays recorded for the screen rarely translate well; stage-actors are seldom fluent in the ability to perform on camera (it is a very different kind of acting) and the physical limitations of the stage rarely feel at home alongside the expansive potential of the cinema. The Morris’ A Christmas Carol, though, tries to have its cake and eat it – this was always designed for a film camera, and always intended for the big-screen. Yes, the sets are stylistically two dimensional, but the action is not limited to a single stage and fourth wall-claustrophobia never rears its ugly head.
The film isn’t heavily stylized just for the sake of it, though – there is a narrative explanation. A Christmas Carol sets the scene in a Victorian family home. A group of young siblings are playing with a paper theatre as their grandmother sits by the hearth. Requesting a story, the children sit back as she recounts the Dickens tale, and the youngest girl begins to imagine the proceedings as if performed in the cardboard colosseum. The camera zooms into the little theatre as it’s residents spring to life, and we find ourselves rehomed within the world of paper and of the page.
To be honest I also feel like it’s worth offering a little disclaimer, because while this is more of a play than a typical film, this is also more of a ballet than a typical play. Each main role in the story is played by a contemporary dancer (to varying degrees of effectiveness). On one hand, seeing the various ghouls and ghosts contort themselves across the stage is genuinely creepy and suitably camp for the Christmas-time. The dancing is less effective, though, during the more mundane sections of the plot. When Scrooge is visited by his nephew at his office at the beginning of the film, for example, there are twists and twirls a-plenty. The dancing is good and fits nicely with the narrative’s tempo, but glazing the whole film with the luster of dance seems to rob the plot of its punch – meaning, if everything is heightened then nothing is. What makes the ghost of Marley unnatural and disturbing if Scrooge’s handsome nephew hops around with the same gait?
The dancers may embody the characters, but they don’t voice them. Instead, each character is co-performed by a narrator. Mikey Boats (pictured above), for example, appears on-screen as the jubilant Ghost of Christmas Present while the Award-winning Daniel Kaluuya voices the role. It’s an interesting style of performance, one which sees the dancers remain still lipped while disembodied voices echo across the ‘stage’. The effect of this dubbing, in which characters talk without opening their mouths, is dream-like, and mimics the themes of the novel itself (which describes Scrooge's personal crisis as a nocturnal, intangible reality). It’s also a clever way to ensure that big names can sign onto the project without committing to a large chunk of time on-set – Simon Russell Beale, Carey Mulligan, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman also lend their voices. Once again, though, this style of performance feels less effective if implemented by every character. A Christmas Carol shines during its hauntings, yes, but is otherwise admittedly a bit one-note.
That’s perhaps a little unfair, for the ghosts are also the sole subjects of the film’s few special effects. The directors themselves noted their intention to maintain the film's classical feel, so chose only to implement the most traditional styles of SFX seen in early cinema. The result of these old-school practices are ghosts which feel hauntingly realistic, as if these giant spectres or dripping demons formed of smog really could stroll the West End stage. In a world where even the Muppets have taken a crack at Scrooge’s story, it’s this interesting fusion of film, dance and theatre which allows A Christmas Carol to feel classic - sophisticated even - while at the same time bringing something seemingly fresh to the canon of ‘Carol’ translations.
It’s a shame that this new take on ‘A Christmas Carol’ doesn’t quite pack the desired narrative punch because, initially, it's spectacular and dynamic. Perhaps my over-familiarity with the plot has something to do with it – it’s hard to get truly invested in something for the hundredth time. It is for this reason that I think Morris and Morris’ A Christmas Carol would be a brilliant treat for younger fans of the arts, unfamiliar with Dickens’ work. This would also be well received, I might add, by fans of traditional theatre and contemporary dance. It’s bound to be a marmite film – most risk-taking pictures are – but this film's goals are well-realized and impressive, and should please those who've missed visiting the theatre on account of the current pandemic.
A Christmas Carol is set to hit a limited range of cinemas on December 4th 2020. For more information, please follow this link: https://www.achristmascarol2020.film/?country=united-kingdom
Written by James Green