Sunday, 6 December 2020

A Christmas Carol - 2012, film

A Christmas Carol (technically Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on the title card, but just A Christmas Carol in all their publicity material I could find, so I have gone with the latter)
Digitally-released feature film for online streaming
Production company:
October Eleven Pictures
2012 (released online on January 1st 2012)
82 minutes
Victorian London
There have been British, American, Canadian and Australian adaptations of A Christmas Carol reviewed on the blog – and now here’s the first Irish version to join the ranks. In fact, director Jason Figgis claimed this to be not simply the first Irish adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but the first Irish film version of any of Dickens’s works full stop. It was released online at one minute past midnight on the first of January 2012 – which looks at first glance to be an odd choice, just missing Christmas, but evidently Figgis was keen to publicise it as the very first adaptation of one of Dickens’s works to be released in the author’s bicentennial year.
The film took two years to make, and was allegedly made on a budget of just 1200 euros – with the cast and crew being promised a 25% share of any profits from online rentals of the film. Whether or not the film ever made much money seems doubtful, and the whole production company looks on the surface to be something of a vanity project for Figgis and his producer brother Johnny. However, at least they actually got this – and other films – made and out there in the world, which is more than can be said for many if not most other wannabe filmmakers.

Cast and crew:
As you’d expect from a low-budget Irish film, the majority of the cast and crew are from Ireland, led by Vincent Fegan as Scrooge. Fegan had by this point gained a variety of short film and minor television credits to his name, in common with most of the rest of the cast. There are some more experienced names in the credits, though – Bryan Murray as Marley was a regular in RTE’s soap opera Fair City, and had also appeared in well-known British shows such as The Bill and Casualty.
By far and away the most recognisable face, however, is Brendan O’Carroll, who turns up halfway through as Old Joe. O’Carroll was at this point already gaining success with his Mrs Brown character, so I can only imagine he must have owed someone involved a favour – or perhaps more charitably, wanted to support a home-grown Irish film effort. His fellow Irish comic Brendan Grace appears as the Ghost of Christmas Present – he’ll be known to many for a memorable guest turn in Father Ted as Father Fintan Stack, the unpleasant replacement for Father Jack in one episode.

Director, editor, scriptwriter and general driving force behind the whole thing Jason Figgis had initially worked as an animator in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, before forming October Eleven Pictures with his brother in the early 2000s. They made shorts, documentaries and eventually their own low-budget full-length films, of which A Christmas Carol was the third.
Underdone Potato:
Unusually for a modern film that isn’t a James Bond movie, this begins with a long opening titles sequence. You can see why Hollywood abandoned such things decades ago, but I suppose they wanted to put the credits for people who had given their time for very little or nothing front-and-centre where viewers would actually see them. This is all accompanied by a very imposing, mournful opening theme, which makes it sound more as if something like The Omen is about to start – it’s certainly not a Christmassy piece of music.

This is one of those versions where they decide to have Charles Dickens bookend the thing, and indeed as well as actually appearing at the start and end, his voiceover is heard throughout, reading passages of the text which are usually missing from most adaptations. It does have to be said, however, that this doesn’t always fit as well as it might do, working better at some points than at others. This even extends to including the Hamlet bit of the opening narration, complete with an actor playing Hamlet himself!
Mind you, Figgis does get bonus points from me for including all of Fred’s “other journeys” speech, which usually gets cut down to miss what is, for me, the best part. Curiously, the character of Fred is credited as “Frederick Scrooge”, which suggests that either Figgis wants to add some hint that Ebenezer’s disapproval of his nephew perhaps comes from his being born out of wedlock – although there’s no hint of this in the film itself – or else he’s simply misunderstood the nature of their familial relationship.
As well as Fred’s visit we have the two charitable gentlemen, and Scrooge’s usual exchanges with Bob, before he’s off back to his rooms and Marley comes calling. The ghostly effect of Marley is quite good, and might give a nice little jump scare to some on his first appearance, but you can’t really see any chains on him. Presumably why Figgis decides to try and compensate by overlaying the constant tinkling of what must be said are fairly puny-sounding chains.

Weirdly, although most of Marley’s dialogue is present, much of Scrooge’s is cut from their exchange. So Marley answers unasked questions, and for most of his visit it imparting a monologue rather than actually engaging in conversation with his former partner.
There’s an interesting technique used for the Ghost of Christmas Past – it has the face of a woman, but the lips never move and the voice is done off-screen by a man. There’s no suggestion of any of the candle-like qualities of the original, though.

The Ghost of Christmas Past... just hanging around!
As happens throughout all of the visitations Scrooge makes, he doesn’t interact with any of the scenes being shown. However, unlike in versions where the visions appear in his room and he simply watches them as if they were being projected on a screen, here it’s more the other way around. I’m guessing that Fegan was only available – or the only had the money for him – for a limited amount of time, so probably shot all his scenes in one block, and to allow for minimum interaction with the visions he watches them from off-screen, as if inside a window or a mirror of some sort with the spirit standing next to him. This does make sense for a low-budget film shot over a long period of time.
We see Scrooge’s school, with Fan coming to take him away, and we see the Fezziwigs’ party – although ‘party’ is a very generous description of it. Actually, it’s just Fezziwig telling Scrooge and Dick to shut up shop early because it’s Christmas Eve, and then the three of them sharing a drink. Presumably the budget couldn’t even run to a Mrs Fezziwig.

The Belle break-up scene is done pretty much in full and quite well, but we then have the second Belle scene, which comes across as a very bleak affair. Like the Fezziwig scene, it suffers from its sparseness – just as there was no time or money for partygoers at Fezziwig’s, presumably there was none for Belle’s bustling, happy household. Instead we just have her and her husband sitting by the fire, and whether intentionally or not it doesn’t exactly come across as a particularly happy marriage.
Brendan Grace as the Ghost of Christmas Present gives an enjoyable performance as the Spirit pretty much as described in the book – as far as budget allows, anyway. He’s also the first actor to be allowed to keep an Irish accent for the role, although lead actor Fegan does come-and-go a bit. Fegan’s no worse than George C. Scott in the much more storied 1984 version in terms of his English accent, mind.
Poor old Tiny Tim doesn’t get to speak at all, throughout the entire thing – presumably the boy either wasn’t good enough or couldn’t do an English accent well enough for it, so he’s mute. As with the previous section, what should be warm and cosy scenes are rendered rather cold and lifeless here. It probably doesn’t help that the Cratchits have an enormous kitchen, which doesn’t really square with the Spirit’s dialogue about the “poor corner” where the crutch without an owner will one day be kept.

Fred’s place is similarly glum – just he and his wife sitting alone by the window, in what really does come across as a miserable scene.
The Spirit doesn’t get any older through his time with Scrooge, although there is a very good stab at Ignorance and Want. The shot of the two children peeking out from under his cloak works well, and they do both look suitably pale and thin.
Yet to Come:
It could just be an effect of how it’s lit, but it seems as though the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come wears a red rather than a black robe in this version. As in many other versions, however, it does a lot of pointing – with a human-looking hand which has been made-up to look suitably disgusting by smearing it in something like Vaseline.

In a choice that doesn’t quite work for me, the people Scrooge sees discussing his death are the two charitable gentlemen – even though Scrooge has shunned their collection, it does feel a bit out-of-character for them to talk about him like this. It’s an especially odd choice as we then have two random businessmen who discuss Scrooge’s death in passing, casually dismissing it, in a scene hardly even done on-screen. Why not just use those two to shoot the more familiar “lunch provided” one, instead of making the charity collectors double-up?
We then get the Old Joe scene, with Brendan O’Carroll – who I’d had no idea was in this – taking me by surprise by turning up all of a sudden as Joe and being pretty much the best thing in it. Joe being Irish seems realistic for Victorian London, and the laundress keeps her Irish accent too, as well as being given an Irish name in Mrs Murphy, although Mrs Dilber is done as English.
The debtors who are relieved by Scrooge’s death are changed from being a young married couple to a family of four young women and girls. And after having been absent in the ‘Present’ section, when we go to the Cratchits to see them mourning Tiny Tim, Peter Cratchit is suddenly around, which might be a bit confusing for anyone who’s not familiar with the story.
We see Scrooge’s gravestone, and they even give him some dates – 1785 to 1854.
What’s To-Day:
There’s a weird shot shortly after Scrooge has awoken from his time with the Spirits where the sun streaming through the window obscures Fegan’s face to such a degree that it actually made me wonder if he had wrapped before they could get this shot in, and they were using  body-double instead. I don’t think that’s the case – it’s just a strange shot choice.
We have all the usual business with the boy, although the faithfulness to the original doesn’t extend as far as throwing a sarcastic, “Walk-er!” in there. Unfortunately, the problems with the sparseness of things continues, with Scrooge’s visit to Fred and his wife hardly looking like the merriest or jolliest of occasions.
We finish with Scrooge playing his little joke on Bob, as usual, and then Tim and Scrooge walking through what’s presumably meant to be Scrooge’s house, as ‘Charles Dickens’ delivers the final voiceover – including the concluding, ‘God bless us, every one!’, as poor old Tim still doesn’t get a line.

Possibly the two main attractions of A Christmas Carol for film-makers are also two of the biggest difficulties in getting your version noticed. Namely, it’s an incredibly well-known and popular story, which is also out-of-copyright and therefore freely available for anyone’s use. While this means you have a ready source of a strong, much-loved story for your film, it also means that there are a very large number of other versions competing for attention, so it’s going to take something special to get yourself widely seen.
Sadly for all those involved, this version lacks any sort of special quality which might set it out as unique and worthy of attention. While I can easily understand wanting to adapt the Carol, for the above-mentioned reasons, I can’t help but wonder if you’d be better off simply coming up with your own story. Or perhaps, if you wanted to try and adapt Dickens, perhaps having a go at one of the other Christmas books?
It might even have worked better if they’d gone all-out and done an actual Irish-set rather than simply Irish-made version of the tale, which would certainly have been a new interpretation. While most of the cast do a decent job with their English accents – certainly a much better job than an equivalent cast of English actors might do with a film set in 19th century Ireland – I wonder whether it’s no coincidence that perhaps the two best performances in the whole thing, from Brendans Grace and O’Carroll, were from two of the only three actors who were allowed to keep Irish accents for the parts…?

An issue with setting it in London is that the locations never convince. Because they’re trying to avoid anything anachronistic, the whole thing has a very rural air to it, and a complete lack of any extras or even the suggestion of any crowd noise in the streets lends the whole thing a very empty, spartan air. It’s a cold, bleak version of the Carol, even at the moments when it’s trying to convey the cheer of the story.
Unsurprisingly, it does also look very cheap, with some shots having an almost camcorder feel to them. There are some nice-looking bits here and there – the arty opening titles shots as seen in the grab at the top of this page, for example – but on the whole the low-budget nature of the thing really is felt throughout. Some of the direction is also quite poor – towards the start there are some confusingly-edited random flash-forward shots to some of the visions Scrooge will be seeing later, and there are also some ponderously-long sequences without dialogue which could have done with being trimmed down.
Speaking of trimming down, while I applaud Figgis for including a lot of the text, with some portions which are rarely seen or heard on-screen, if anything the film suffers from being too faithful to the original. Some of the Dickensian narration goes on for too long to comfortably fit in, and the same goes for some of he dialogue sequences too. While he does include some of my favourite lines which I often miss from other versions, it’s a lesson that sometimes over-fidelity to the original can be a weakness. This is simply a different medium, and you have to make allowances and compromises for that.
In a nutshell:
Well done to them for doing it and for getting it made. But this is very much one for the completists only.
Amazon Prime

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