A Christmas Carol

***

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

A Christmas Carol 2020
"In truth, this is yet one more safe retelling of an old favourite. Not radical at all."

Just how many Christmas Carols do we need? The earliest that stands out in my memory was dear old Alastair Sim, first grumping, then mugging his way through the lines with which we have all become so familiar. Fast forward to the Seventies and we have a rather less than impressive musical version with Albert Finney in the lead role. The Eighties brought us Scrooged, Bill Murray’s sociopathic rendering of the story. This was followed not long after by The Muppets Christmas Carol, perhaps the finest version yet, with Michael Caine delivering one of my favourite Scrooges.

I was tempted, at this point, to remark that those productions aspiring to the status of serious film tend to reference the Christmas Carol in their titles, as George C Scott in 1984, the less serious to go with Scrooge. Except the Muppets opted for the former. So maybe not. At any rate, the story is now as much part of the Christmas paraphernalia as Christmas tree baubles and chestnuts roasting on the socially distanced fire. This is described as a “radical retelling”, a reclaiming of themes such as “social inequality” and the “corrupting influence of greed”. As though these have been absent from every other telling of the story since forever.

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Perhaps they mean that, in this case, it is a silent acting out of the story – or more precisely, dancing out of it – with voice-overs by a lot of very famous actors providing both narrative support and dramatic interaction, that is radical.

Oh dear. Perhaps it is just I who am lacking in the spirits of Christmas. But, no, this isn’t, despite the interesting device of explaining that this is the imaginings of a little girl hearing the story as told her by her grandmother (Siân Phillips), much of a departure from the usual narrative. Okay, it contains a sprinkling of some of Dickens more radical thoughts that usually get cut but otherwise this feels pretty much verbatim, the standard authorised version.

The entirety is artificial, surreal. Dancers wend their way round a highly stylised stage set. Scenery cuts back and forth to cut-outs of scenery that, if not Victorian in origin, still echo the Victorian child’s paperbook style. Made by Frith Street Films, each and every component is redolent of a BBC Christmas production. Well done. Polished. Professional. Stuffed to the gunwales with “national treasures”.

But despite the claims to difference, this is all very same-y. It reeks of a particular style, familiar from my own childhood, the Sunday evening classic, most commonly a six or 12-part reproduction of some work of English literature. Often Dickens. These, too, were well done. Worthy. Also, stodgy.

Back then, we watched them because we had just the two channels and the wi-fi coverage was abysmal. Had there been alternatives, I suspect few would have tuned in as assiduously as audiences did.

In truth, this is yet one more safe retelling of an old favourite. Not radical at all. In places, the tone, the pace, the solemnity reminded of nothing so much as the lengthy Easter gospel reading. The tale of Tiny Tim has become a secular parable, bereft of humour, of personality. In its place a recital of Holy Writ as disclosed to Charles Dickens all those years ago.

The voice performance is incredibly well done. But then, with actors such as Carey Mulligan, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman and plenty more beside to draw on, how could it not be? And what a waste! As experiment, I briefly turned off the picture and …this is a glorious radio drama. Perhaps a result forced by the demands of coronavirus. And the dance? I’m afraid I’m a take-it-or-leave-it sort when it comes to this sub-balletic genre. It is prettily done. But I do not feel it adds much at all.

Quite the reverse in fact.

Sadly, this was, for me, one of those instances where the sum of the parts of a thing is worth much less than the parts individually. There is much that is positive and nice to be said about each element of this production. But taken as a whole, I am unimpressed. Perhaps that makes ME the Grinch (another Christmas staple not yet fallen into the Scrooge trap, but coming up fast behind).

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2020
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A Christmas Carol packshot
A dance-infused interpretation of the seasonal classic.

Director: Jacqui Morris

Writer: David Morris, based on the book by Charles Dickens

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Leslie Caron, Siân Phillips, Simon Russell Beale, Oliver John Lock, Billy Jenkins, Thea Achillea, Ruby McMillan-Wilson, Mikey Boateng, Franasowicz Jakub, Grace Jabbari, Steff D'Arcy

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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