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Scrooge Month Day 12: Sir Patrick Stewart in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1999)

Christmas Carol 1999Director: David Hugh Jones

Writer: Peter Barnes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Joel Grey, Ian McNeice, Saskia Reeves, Desmond Barrit, Bernard Lloyd, Dominic West, Laura Fraser, Ben Tibber, Rosie Wiggins

Notes: In the 90s, Sir Patrick Stewart performed a one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol, which garnered great acclaim for several years. The TNT Network, recognizing a good thing when they see it, then produced this film starring Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart got a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor in a television movie or miniseries and both the movie and Stewart were nominated for Saturn Awards, the big prize for science fiction and fantasy. It’s a very straightforward version of the story, with the inclusion several scenes from the novel that many adaptations omit.

Thoughts: Patrick Stewart rarely fails to bring the Awesome, let’s be honest. Even when he’s in a bad movie, he’s typically the bright spot in a miasma of mediocrity, and here I am specifically thinking of X-Men: The Last Stand. So it’s not surprising that in this made-for-TV movie, he puts forth a Scrooge every bit as powerful and definitive as Alastair Sim or Albert Finney.

This film kicks things off with Marley’s funeral, a spot adaptations don’t cover that often, and from the start we see screenwriter Peter Barnes trying to bring in some of the Dickens language into the film. Although there’s no narrator as in the Muppets film, here we have some of the narration dropped properly into the mouths of Scrooge and others – the opening diatribe about why a doornail is considered particularly “dead.” When reading the book, that tangent in the first paragraph of the first page has always felt a bit odd to me. Here, it serves to show the mundane way Scrooge treats the death of his partner and sole friend. Much of the dialogue is verbatim Dickens, and Stewart delivers each line with the power and certainty that always drips from his voice.

In the opening scenes we see that this isn’t a Scrooge that explodes in anger or mocks those foolish enough to entreat him for donations to the poor. Stewart’s Scrooge is rather quiet and subdued. Even when he threatens a caroler with a beating, his voice doesn’t raise above the level of a bitter growl. Even in his quiet moments, though, Stewart is perhaps the most intimidating Scrooge we’ve met yet. So often Scrooge is portrayed as a feeble old man. Here he moves with weight and rage that is almost visible around him

TV or no, this Christmas Carol has some of the most impressive special effects we’ve seen yet. Bernard Lloyd appears as Marley’s ghost: he has a spectral form, his hair constantly shifting as though blown by a breeze that doesn’t affect anything else in the room. At one point his jaw falls open in a rather hideous sight that probably gave the willies to a few kids watching this. On a performance level, this gives us the chance to see Scrooge interacting with that rarest of things for him – an equal. He speaks to Marley with a casual familiarity that we didn’t see as he spoke to Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant) or his nephew Fred (Dominic West). Even now, before his redemption has begun, we see that Stewart’s Scrooge is more layered than most of those who came before him.

Joel Grey’s Christmas Past is perhaps my favorite of the human actors to portray the part. He has a light air about him, and constantly stands bathed in light. It’s a twist on the “candle” conceit that many versions go with, and it suits him nicely. He comes across as a little patronizing towards Scrooge, which the old codger sort of deserves at this point in the story. As Scrooge starts to feel the effects of his own past, such as when he sees his sister (Rosie Wiggins), we see the Ghost’s smile change from one of condescension to pride that he’s having the proper influence already.

I haven’t said much about the assorted Fezziwigs in this project, because there’s rarely much to say. He’s the jolly shopkeeper Scrooge apprenticed under, he throws a slammin’ Christmas party every year, but he doesn’t have too much to do. Ian McNeice, however, really steals his scene this time around. The man brings so much joy and energy to the screen that you want to watch a whole special about him. Even his musical number plays the character as a sweet, good-hearted ham, like everybody’s goofy uncle that makes the same lousy jokes at every Christmas dinner, but you love him and you love them and it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas if they were missing. Even Scrooge himself defends the man with a real ferocity when Christmas Past dares to disparage him. Somebody at TNT take note, if McNeice is available and amenable, I want to watch A Very Fezziwig Christmas next year.

Next it’s Desmond Barrit’s turn as Christmas Present, complete with the green robes and holly wreath. Barrit is a more low-key than most Presents. He’s not loud or bombastic, and in fact he seems almost sluggish as he walks around sprinkling his “milk of human kindness” onto the food of the poor. He doesn’t have the judgment of Scrooge in his voice that many people do, but rather a profound sadness. I’ve got to say, much as I like this version of the story, I’m not really keen on Barrit’s ghost.

Christmas Yet to Come here is a shadowed figure with glowing embers for eyes. Of the ghosts in this film, though, it’s also the least convincing. The unaltered, human hands that reach out from beneath the robes to point Scrooge around are somewhat jarring, and only further serve to make you feel like you’re looking at a guy wearing a false head on top of his own like a theme park costume. The other ghosts, including Barrit’s, all have a sufficiently otherworldly (or at least Dickensian) look to them. Christmas Yet to Come looks like something a moderately-skilled cosplayer puts together on his weekend off.

Fortunately, the rest of this sequence is considerably more effective. Scrooge’s pain when he realizes he’s watching the results of his own death comes across perfectly, with Patrick Stewart agonizing over the idea of looking at his own body and asking to see emotion connected to his death. From there we cut to a young couple rejoicing in that they’ll have time to get the money to pay their mortgage now – not exactly what Scrooge had in mind. The scene in the Cratchit home is a real gut-punch, as Bob talks to Tiny Tim’s body, still lying in his bed. It’s rare we actually see the dead child – most adaptations show Bob coming home from the cemetery or visiting the grave. Something about seeing him lying there makes the scene all the more heartbreaking.

The Redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge at the end, like the bitter one at the beginning, is also a little subdued. Stewart doesn’t simply explode out of his bed, but he goes through some really clever ticks – touching his hand to make sure he’s corporeal, choking a bit before he remembers how to laugh and finally spinning into a man wrapped up with joy. Maybe my favorite bit comes when he asks the passing child to go and buy the turkey for Bob Cratchit, he actually has to take a moment to force out his newfound generosity. He’s made the decision to change, but just for a second we get a reminder that old habits die hard. Once he hands over the first few coins to the child, though, it’s like the dam has burst – he gives the man with the turkey extra money for a cab, walks through the streets depositing coins in the cups of beggars, and even engages the children in a snowball fight. He has to push the wall down, but when it’s down by God it stays down. Even then, though, it’s hard for him to knock on Fred’s door, and he almost passes by entirely. He’s willing, but ashamed at his past, and he has to overcome it. Bless ya, Sir Patrick, for making Ebenezer Scrooge a real human.

Although this isn’t the best adaptation of the novel (as I said, the latter two ghosts were really quite weak), most of the performances are pretty good, and Patrick Stewart puts out one of the finest performances as Ebenezer Scrooge I’ve ever seen. It’s worth watching this movie for him alone.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 4: Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stokers DraculaDirector: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick

Plot: In 1492, the warrior Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns from battle to find his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself after hearing a false report of his death. Enraged, Dracula renounces God and stabs a cross, which begins flowing with blood. He drinks the blood and screams.

Over four hundred years later, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given an account from his colleague Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone mad. Harker says goodbye to his fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder again) and travels to meet his new client, Count Dracula of Transylvania – now a frail-looking old man, but with horrible power. When Dracula sees Harker’s photograph of Mina, he is stricken, believing her to be the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Harker explores the castle, only to be found and fed upon by Dracula’s three “brides” (Monica Bellucci, Michela Bercu and Florina Kendrick).

Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) is romanced by three separate men: a visiting American, Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell); Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant); and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes). She ultimately accepts Arthur’s proposal of marriage. Dracula, meanwhile, has boxed up himself and the most important parts of his household and is sailing to England and his new property in Carfax Abby. As they arrive in England, Dracula transforms into a wolf-like monster and seeks out the home of Harker’s fiancé. Mina awakens to see Lucy, mesmerized, leaving her home in the midst of a storm, and finds her being ravaged by the wolf-man. When he sees Mina watching, he flees. In the morning he appears as a young man, and introduces himself to her as “Prince Vlad of Sangre.”

Concerned for Lucy’s ailing health, Seward calls for Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He arrives to see Lucy again being drained of blood, this time by Dracula in shadow-form. He gives her a transfusion from Arthur. Elsewhere, Dracula plies Mina with absinthe, wooing her slowly. Harker manages to escape from Dracula’s brides and sends for Mina to join him so they can finally be married. When she bids farewell to her “prince,” he goes into a mad fit and kills Lucy. After her funeral, Van Helsing convinces her three suitors to join him in opening her crypt, only to find it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, enters the tomb with a small child intent on feeding, and the men slay her. Harker joins them and tells them Dracula resides at Carfax Abby, and they plan to destroy him.

Van Helsing and the others go to the Abby and begin destroying the boxes of Transylvanian soil Dracula must sleep in. He, meanwhile, visits Mina, who begs him to grant her his gift of eternal life. As she drinks his blood, Van Helsing and the others burst in and force him back. He transforms into a horde of rats and escapes. He takes a ship to return home, but the others take Mina by train, a much faster voyage. Van Helsing and Mina travel to the castle, while the others try to head off the gypsies transporting Dracula’s casket. The Brides attack Van Helsing, but he manages to track them to their crypt and slay them by the light of day. The hunters catch up to Dracula at the castle. Morris dies in the battle, but not before stabbing Dracula in the heart. The wounded vampire crawls into the chapel where his curse began and dies, Mina by his side. She professes her love to him before cutting off his head, releasing him from his curse. A fresco appears, picturing the human Vlad and Elisabeta rising, at long last, into Heaven.

Thoughts: You’ve got to give Francis Ford Coppola credit – the man doesn’t do half-measures. From the first moments of the film, when we see Gary Oldman marching around in blood-red armor sculpted to suggest bare muscle tissue, we know we’re in for a wild sort of ride. That’s only where it begins, though – Coppola took great pains to give this film a unique look, eschewing camera tricks, even the sort of green screen that was common when the film was made in 1992. Every effect is practical, including the projection of words on the faces of actors, the reflection of enormous eyes onto glass windows, and some frankly humorous model train work. Lightning strikes don’t look remotely realistic, instead giving the impression of someone shining a flashlight through a cut-out flat behind the actors. It’s as if Coppola decided that he was by god going to make sure everything he captured on film was no more complicated than he could have gotten out of a community theater production of the story. And boy, did he succeed.

Despite the inherent goofiness of doing something this way, though, I find that the look of the film is one of the first things I loved about it. This doesn’t look like any of the other Dracula movies I’ve seen… hell, it doesn’t look like any other movie I’ve seen. It has a unique sort of style, not just in the design but in the way all the elements come together, that appeals to me in ways I can’t fully articulate. Let’s just say there’s something really cool about all of it, the same way you realize your dad was kind of cool when you get older and catch yourself making the same kind of jokes that embarrassed the hell out of you when he told them to your friends.

On the plus side, some of the monster effects are really cool. While certain other films downplayed the notion that vampires could change their shape or were limited by the effects of the time, Coppola pulls off a pretty convincing monstrous transformation on the screen, with Oldman metamorphosing from a pale creature to a hairy, wolflike beast. (Yeah, folks, in classic lore vampires could turn into bats or wolves. Also mist. It’s cool.) The design of the human-sized bat is really creepy and worthy of the nastiest supernatural horror flick. The set design is impressive, and the costumes are top-notch.

Gary Oldman… if ever there was an actor who gave himself entirely to the movie, it’s Gary Oldman. He’s given us the finest interpretation of Commissioner James Gordon ever to fit a Batman movie, and he’s also given us the insane, over-the-top lunacy of The Fifth Element. One thing you can count on is that he never phones in his performance. In this film, he revels in the cheesy dialogue and ridiculous character work he’s asked to do. Every chunk of scenery to be chewed, every wild arm flailing or preposterous accent… when Gary Oldman presents it to you, you know he believes it.

Winona Ryder is pretty effective as Mina, pulling off a passable British accent and a convincing amount of young naiveté, as befits the character. Anthony Hopkins brings his usual air of class to Van Helsing, and Cary Elwes continues to prove, as I asserted back during Robin Hood week, that he should have been born in an earlier era, because he has the presence of a grand star of cinema’s Golden Age. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves.

I’m a little weirded out by the ending, to be perfectly honest. Coppola appears to be trying for some sort of fable about the healing power of love, showing some sort of redemption for Dracula after Mina’s love “sets him free” (by means of brutal decapitation). That’s all well and good, lord knows there aren’t many people that believe in true love as much as I do, but is Dracula really the best place to insert that particular moral? The man is, by every definition of the term, a terrible monster. He chose to turn against God, he brutally murdered countless people over 400 years, but at the end he seems to get a pass just because he got a woman (that he gave the vmpire equivalent of a roofie) to say she loves him. That’s the ending of Beauty and the Beast, except that the Beast was only guilty of kidnapping and a little mild verbal abuse. How does Dracula deserve redemption?

That aside, I enjoy this movie quite a bit. It’s a well-made production with its own look and feel that sets it apart from any other version of the character, and for me, that’s one of the most important things you can look for in a movie.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!