I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring just how wild his career has been.
Steven Knight’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol premiered on the FX network in three parts but is presented on Hulu as a single three-hour film. It was viewed for the sake of this article as a single film and frankly seems to function better as a contained narrative given the seemingly arbitrary title-card breaks.
Like other adaptations of Dickens’ work, this version of A Christmas Carol takes some liberties in its presentation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Guy Pearce plays him here as a disgusting louse whose attractiveness only hides his truly despicable behavior.
And yeah, he’s attractive.
The white makeup to remove the color from his face and the slick hairstyle to convey lack of attention to physical appearance only make him even more alluring. He’s like a demon here. The most famous on-screen interpretations of Scrooge make him out to be a senior citizen whose redemption fits with the stereotypical “kindly old man” model. Here, Knight — with co-producers Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott — has zero interest in a Scrooge whose redemption feels deserved or even earned.
In this telling, Scrooge is an investor whose penny pinching directly caused a tragic mine collapse seven years prior, killing or maiming countless workers. His hostile-takeover methodology has put hundreds of workers on the streets around Christmas. When Mrs. Cratchit (Vinette Robinson) comes to him to ask for pity and cash for medical expenses for her son, Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush), Scrooge sexually humiliates her just to prove “anything is for sale.” It’s like the scene in Bombshell with Margot Robbie and John Lithgow, but in this case we’re supposed to hope the bully finds redemption.
And also: He’s kind of hot.
The term best used to describe this version of A Christmas Carol is “grimdark” — pessimistic and depressing just for the sake of it. Although it’s three hours long, there are a number of subplots that don’t add much to the actual story of the piece — particularly a lengthy origin story for the ghost of Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham), Scrooge’s late partner who sets the visitations in motion. Who cares? It’s genuinely meaningless in the scheme of things, beyond serving as an opportunity to visit hell and introduce the supernatural from the first minute rather than start with Scrooge and his put-upon employee Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn).
Scrooge is visited by apparitions of the past, present and future, but the latter two really get short shrift as Andy Serkis plays up a creepy take on the Ghost of Christmas Past. As with Scrooge’s profession, elements of his traditional backstory are remixed into something unrelentingly grim. This time around, Scrooge’s childhood in a boarding house (sold by his poor father) includes papal sexual abuse. The classic sequences with his childhood love interest, whom he gave up in pursuit of monetary profit, are relegated to a brief scene — less important to Knight than hammering home the idea that we should empathize with abuser Scrooge because he himself was abused. As with many grimdark re-tellings, Knight’s tale tries to shortcut empathy by presenting a bad person as having once been a victim of bad people.
His late sister Lottie (Charlotte Riley) appears as the Ghost of Christmas Present while Jason Flemyng plays the Ghost of Christmas Future. These spectral happenings occur stuffed into the final 40 or so minutes after a good chunk of the film is spent setting up Scrooge being a jerk, followed by the Ghost of Christmas Past showing him multiple instances of said jerky behavior. Sure, the story is about atonement, but it’s a glacial retelling more interested at shocking you with modern storytelling flourishes than delivering pathos or real emotional catharsis.
Holding it all together is Pearce as Scrooge. His handsome visage aside, Pearce really sells this version — with much of the story hinging on his more subtle displays of emotion when the script mostly calls for awfulness. He’s a younger, more damaged Scrooge. Although the script plays into tired tropes, Pearce makes the character work anyway. His big visit to the Cratchits at the end and manic expression of goodwill is perfectly attuned to the dour tone of Knight’s overall storytelling. Credit to Pearce, but frankly, the whole thing works because of him.
Even then, a three-hour running time isn’t warranted. Maybe as a three-night event, the labored aesthetic doesn’t feel as stifling. Frankly, Knight’s approach to the material may please fans of his work on Peaky Blinders and Taboo, but it doesn’t make this anything close to a classic take on the story. It’s appreciable that Knight made Scrooge’s form of capitalism more bombastically horrendous. But with the eventuality of redemption, it doesn’t feel like the social commentary is much changed through use of edgy excess. Scrooge is an evil man who finds some solace and a change of heart, and thus wins in the end regardless.
A swing and a miss, but a watchable one.