What did Charles Dickens ever do to Steven Knight?
Knight, the force behind Yorkshire crime drama “Peaky Blinders” and the nonsensical Tom Hardy Victorian stew called “Taboo,” has gotten his hands on “A Christmas Carol.”
Viewers hoping for yet another traditional adaption of the beloved novella will have to endure what contemporary critics usually call a tale that “subverts expectations.” This usually means that your narrative expectations will not only be frustrated but often neglected, abused and probably twisted for no reason. Because writers like Knight, who has had success writing screenplays (one Oscar nomination for “Dirty Pretty Things”) want to affix a modern-day sensibility on a classic tale. Or teach Dickens a thing or two.
His success rate with “A Christmas Carol” is about 60 percent. We have a marvelous cast (Guy Pearce, Vinette Robinson and especially Stephen Graham, who, as gangster Tony Pro, goes toe-to-toe with Al Pacino in two of the best scenes in “The Irishman”) and some cool special effects but was it really necessary to imply that Ebenezer Scrooge — the sinister miser underplayed by Pearce — was molested by his headmaster at Blackbridge Boarding School? Does this somehow make him more sympathetic? As if Scrooge isn’t mean enough, he also becomes responsible for a Welsh mining accident that result in dozens of fatalities. Making Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) work until 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve gets the same point across without melodrama.
Most unbelievably, Knight also takes a page from the showbiz sexual predator playbook by offering to give Mary Cratchit (Robinson) money for an operation for Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush) if she will leave her family before Christmas dinner to somehow “do whatever he wants.” #MeToo milady?
Oh, c’mon. One wants to say, “You big silly.” What’s wrong with the original story? Since people have been reading it since 1843 and adapting it for stage, screen and school plays since then, it’s fair to say not much. Knight even changes the original name of Scrooge’s sister in the book — Fan — to Lotte for the new film. Why?
Also new on the scene: Ali Baba (Kayvan Novak), who leaps from the pages of Scrooge’s childhood books to tell part of the story usually told by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis). The turban alone will throw you.
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This “Christmas Carol” occasionally hits the same narrative marks as the original and it’s smooth sailing for most of the first of the three hours, thanks to Graham’s flamboyant performance as Jacob Marley who accepts his assignment to make Scrooge achieve repentance with grim solemnity. There are some funny bits where Scrooge sees Marley’s face imprinted on the door knocker to his London mansion, knocks the bottom half off and later Marley pays him a visit, picking his jaw up off the floor. A scene where Scrooge sees a vision on his ceiling of Tiny Tim falling through a frozen pond is quite striking.
However Knight wants to fiddle with the original material, he boxes himself into a corner when it comes to Scrooge’s redemption, which is the culmination of the story. How do you redeem someone who is a sexual predator? It’s here where Knight’s desire to “update” a story that is fine as is falters. With Mary Cratchit shooing Scrooge out of the house after his mea culpa — and offer of 500 pounds to Bob for his years of service — he accepts that his deeds can’t all be forgiven.
Someday, we may be able to forgive this “Christmas Carol.” Just not this year.
“A Christmas Carol” airs Thursday, Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m. on FX.
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