Featuring Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation and films, Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine, and X-Men: Days of Future Past), Richard E. Grant (Dr. Simeon in Doctor Who‘s 2012 Christmas Special The Snowmen, and The Great Intelligence in The Name of the Doctor), Ian McNiece (Winston Churchill in Doctor Who‘s The Beast Below, Victory of the Daleks, The Pandorica Opens, and The Wedding of River Song), Dominic West (John Carter), Laura Fraser (Casanova), and Celia Imrie (Doctor Who‘s The Bells of Saint John, Bridget Jones’ Diary), I remember watching this version of A Christmas Carol when it aired on TNT, and I quite liked it.
According to The New York Times review, “A Timeless Spirit of Giving Melts That Hardened Heart”:
”A Christmas Carol” has been so candied over the years, starring everyone from Bill Murray to Scrooge McDuck, that in the popular imagination it has lost the dark vision of poverty that inspired Dickens’s tale. But redemption as extreme as Scrooge’s has to come from the bitter depths of misanthropy. TNT’s lively new film restores the hardheartedness of the pre-reformed Scrooge while retaining the delight he later finds in joining the human race. With a vivid texture of 19th-century Christmas festivities — full of songs, dances and bowls of punch you can almost taste — and with Patrick Stewart as a Scrooge whose transformation makes sense, this is a glorious ”Christmas Carol.”
Its greatest triumph is Mr. Stewart’s performance. (He has played all the parts in his one-man stage version.) His Scrooge is a tough, vigorous businessman in late middle age, not the geezer seen in so many lesser versions. He mutters ”Humbug” under his breath as if Christmas were truly beneath his notice. This impenetrable man will not be easily touched, even by ghosts.
The film opens with a gripping outdoor scene that, misleadingly, makes its style seem more realistic than it will turn out to be. Against a snowy landscape, a horse-drawn hearse carries the coffin of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, whom we see being placed into the ground. This immediacy gives way to artifice when the scene changes; Scrooge’s office and the London streets are conspicuous indoor stage sets. Though the falseness pulls against the powerful reality of the film, it adds a functional, storybook quality.
Soon Marley appears to Scrooge, a transparent gray ghost in chains, a tortured soul condemned to travel the earth, desperately unhappy at being cut off from human contact. This is one of the best of the special effects in the film, produced by Hallmark Entertainment, which is famous for its magical stunts (in ”Merlin” and more recently ”Animal Farm”). The effects are least successful when Joel Grey turns up as the Spirit of Christmas Past. He simply looks silly, wearing Kabuki-white makeup and standing in a glow of extreme backlighting. But unlike some Hallmark productions, here the effects never overwhelm the characters.
When Scrooge, in his nightcap and robe, accompanies the spirits through time and begins to feel the pain of his disconnection from others, those emotions are intensified by the superbly cast characters he yearns to touch. Richard E. Grant is especially winning as Bob Cratchit, who easily seems like a wimp to modern eyes but is portrayed here as the gentlest of souls. Saskia Reeves makes Mrs. Cratchit, so often flimsy on screen, a vibrant presence. She resists drinking a toast to Scrooge with justifiable anger, and relents for the sake of family love and true Christmas spirit.
Even the lesser characters are engaging, including Elizabeth Spriggs and Liz Smith as the cackling women who rob the linen from Scrooge’s deathbed in his vision of the future.
Episodes that seem like throwaways actually restore the completeness of Dickens’s story. There are glimpses of poverty and of Christmas celebrations around the world. There is dancing at the Fezziwigs’ ball, and games at Christmas dinner at Scrooge’s nephew’s. And always there is Mr. Stewart as a Scrooge whose heart convincingly, slowly melts, as he is scared into living a generous life.