Monday, 16 November 2009

Zemeckis' Christmas Carol (2009): again

In the event, Zemeckis' Christmas Carol wasn't nearly as crappy as I had feared. The basic story was followed with commendable fidelity, down to reusing lenghty chunks of actual Dickensian dialogue. This was good, because moments where the scriptwriter (Z. himself: the arse-end of Boz as a writer of dialogue, I'm afraid) added material it didn't work: Scrooge snapping 'bugger it!' when he dropped his keys, or the two feral children 'Want' and 'Ignorance' telling Scrooge, with what Z. presumably, and fondly, thinks is authentic British street talk, to 'naff off!' But at other moments, Z. was happy to let Dickens' own slang stand, without itching to explain it to his audience (the young lad at the end who cries 'walker!' in disbelief at Scrooge's instructions to go buy the turkey, for instance). Which was good.

The only other weird little note was the very last monologue, where Z. changes Dickens' triumphant reference to Tim (' ... Tiny Tim, who did NOT die ...') to an oddly watery and implausible ' ... Tiny Tim, who got better ...' (he's crippled by polio, not suffering from the sniffles!). Maybe this was the result of a superstitious fear of mentioning 'death' in the final moments of the film; I don't know.

Visually it is an opulent, indeed rather overwhelming experience. The three spirits are very nicely and inventively handled: all played by Carrey (rightly: they are there to reflect him back on himself after all), and ingeniuously rendered. There's a certain amount of elaboration of the core story at these points: Scrooge shot towards the moon, Scrooge, bafflingly, shrunk to the size of Stuart Little and running for his life along the street pursued by a couple of fearsome red-eyed death-horses that appear to have cantered in from The Fellowship of the Ring. But actually these visual and narrative grace-notes work pretty well, in the main.

Except, except: the film gets more than a little intoxicated on its own 3D-deepened, high-definition wealth of visual possibilities. Sometimes this is jarring in minor ways (Scrooge's nephew is supposed to be poor -- 'what reason,' the old miser snaps at him, 'have you to be merry? You're poor enough' -- but in this film he lives in an enormous and richly decorated palace, really only because such a setting gives the visual designers lots of opportunity for rendering Christmassy-Victorian stuff).

But there's a bigger wrongness going on here, something more interesting I think. I'll tell you what I mean. Christmas Carol is, fundamantally, a story about paucity in the midst of plenty: the materially denuded existences of the poor on the one hand, the spiritually and emotionally barren, shrunken existence of Scrooge on the other. Z.'s film can do the plenty, but not the paucity -- even when Scrooge is in his miser's appartment, every knot and swirl of wood grain, every stitch on his nightcap is not only visible but actively flaunted; and when Want and Ignorance are presented by Christmas Present, it is not enough simply to see them, they must mutate into a full-grown adults, a knife-wielding thug and a leering prostitute, and do an over-choreographed gymnastic dance. Less, though, is more; especially for a pared down fabled like this one.

PS: Lily was pretty scared by Marley's ghost. She left her seat and sat on me, burying her head in my chest for pretty much that whole scene. Mind you, I was pretty scared too. Plus I was genuinely affected by the death of Tiny Tim, a testament less to the story (I've read it so many times now, you'd think repetition would have deadened that emotional effect) than to Gary Oldman's acting. The other players are of variable quality, particularly in the accent department; but Oldman does a tip-top job. Interesting to see that acting can permeate through the weird plasticating process of Z.'s motion-capture animation.

PPS: '...the accent department...' My God. The accents.


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