Friday, 20 November 2009

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens could never have imagined this: his classic literary creation Scrooge, getting yet another once-over…in 3D? Created in motion capture? Director Robert Zemeckis clearly sees something in the venture, even if the near misses of Beowulf and The Polar Express seemed to indicate an ill fit between technology and text. The delightful thing about A Christmas Carol is how well the technology brings Dickens’ cautionary tale to life.

Magnificently well, in fact. From the dizzying opening moments where Victorian London is unveiled, birds-eye style, as a bustling metropolis poised on the brink of change to the more intimately observed details (the Gothic menace of a shop sign or door knocker), A Christmas Carol feels palpably, thrillingly alive.

But a classic tale must, as always, start at the beginning. Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey, doing wizened apathy superbly) has bid premature farewell to his business partner Jacob Marley. Reviled by the carol-singing public and feared by his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), Scrooge undergoes a classic tale of redemption when he is visited by Marley’s ghost in the wee small hours.

Marley (Oldman again) promises Scrooge (in a frightening sequence belying the kiddie-friendly exterior) that he will be visited by three ‘spirits’ (Carrey doing more multi-tasking) in an attempt to make him change his ways. The first of these is to take him into the past, offering reflection on happier times; the second, present, is designed to make him see the consequences of his penny-pinching; and the third, future, ghost is the most terrifying, indicating the course Scrooge’s life will take should he not repent.

In truth, Dickens’ tale was likely not meant for children, the sugary image of Victorian London having been filtered through the various cinematic incarnations over the years. Zemeckis’ more faithful take gets right to the gloomy heart of the tale. From the first toothy appearance of Marley to the heart-breaking misery incumbent on Cratchit’s family by Scrooge, Zemeckis builds on his love of suspenseful B-horror, building to a pitch so that the light at the end of the tunnel can ultimately shine more brightly.

And what glorious titbits there are in this dark, frequently moving tapestry, from Scrooge dismissing tears at the sight of his old school as ‘something in my eye’ to something that resembles love in his more recent past. Always a bold director, Zemeckis is also unafraid to expand on Dicken’s themes in outrageous ways, in this case a monstrous horse and carriage chase representing the encroaching horror of Scrooge’s future.

Carrey meanwhile does his best work in ages as the archetypal old miser, while it’s always a pleasure to see Oldman, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins in substantial roles, building on the classy production. Buoyed by Alan Silvestri’s joyous score that cleverly interweaves traditional carols with the composer’s spirited melodies, there should be no worries about viewers unleashing their inner-Scrooge.

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