Ever since I saw Patrick Stewart’s version of A Christmas Carol in 1999, it became an instant favorite of mine. While nothing will replace the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as my all-time favorite, this version has received an annual viewing every year since it was first on TV. Now, you do have to get past thinking of Captain Jean-Luc Picard but, once you do, you can easily immerse yourself into what is really great movie considering it was made-for-TV in an era where many TV movies had horrible production values.
From the opening scene of Marley’s funeral, you know this is not going to be a sanitized version. It’s gloomy and grimy; exactly what turn-of-the-century London was really like. I instantly felt like Stewart claims the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as his own. By 1999, he had already been playing Scrooge in an annual one-man stage play for ten years. His portrayal as the money-pinching old miser was dead on from the opening scene. As our story develops and Scrooge begins to transform and repent, you can clearly see it in Stewart’s facial expressions as he softens his approach with each good memory that floods back into the present. And his thunderous laughter at the end, when his transformation becomes complete, is like none other. From the clothes he wears to many of his mannerisms, you can easily become transported back in time. There were only a few, very brief instances where we see hints of anachronistic behavior. Those moments are quickly shoved aside as Stewart would again embrace the audience with his next authentic line of dialogue. Clearly his Shakespearian roots would help Stewart truly become Scrooge.
Richard E. Grant (who plays Dr. Simeon in the upcoming Christmas Day episode of Doctor Who, The Snowmen) gives my personal favorite performance of Bob Cratchit. From his tall and gangly build to his tired and hollow eyes, he truly looks like a man who is wore down. His mannerisms are realistic, from his scared approach to Scrooge at the beginning of the film to his grabbing of the poker for defense against the clearly mad Scrooge at the end. Saskia Reeves (Dune, 2000) also gives a great performance as Mrs. Cratchit, loving one minute and showing her hatred for Scrooge the next. The Cratchit home also shows off the impressive and authentic sets, making you believe you really are in London (as opposed to the sanitized MGM sets of 1938). Ian McNeice, better known today as Winston Churchill in Doctor Who, plays a fun and frolicking version of Fezziwig. We also get some lighthearted scenes with Mrs. Fezziwig (Annette Badland). Laura Fraser also gives a nice performance as Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée, as does Dominic West as nephew Fred. Perhaps the only criticism of character development is Ben Tibber as Tiny Tim. The character here is very underdeveloped, primarily to the main focus of this version being all about Scrooge and every other character is clearly secondary.
Our four ghosts are a bit of mixed bag. Bernard Lloyd’s Jacob Marley is truly frightening. The only thing missing is the terrifying shriek Michael Hordern captured in the 1951 version. Joel Grey (Cabaret) is the Ghost of Christmas Past. I think he did an okay job but I prefer Michael Dolan in the 1951 version. However, I truly enjoyed Desmond Barrit as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Perhaps the weakest part of the movie is the reveal of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This is almost entirely due to outdated special effects that were admittedly a little on the cheap side in 1999. But again, even through all of the reveals, the main focus is always on Scrooge. Where the ghosts may lack in overall performance, Stewart always steps in and takes control of the scene.
With so many versions of A Christmas Carol, the debates are never-ending. Who was the better Scrooge? Which is the definitive version? Why does this version have the scene and the other do not? You’re going to have various edits and changes when dealing with countless versions of the age-old story. However, the key factor really is the actor playing Scrooge and Patrick Stewart owns the role. Much as I feel Lionel Barrymore would have done so in 1938, Stewart did so in 1999. The movie is readily available on DVD but, sadly, only in full screen as this was made for TNT television back in 1999. This has earned yearly viewings ever since and, if you’ve never given this one a try, I highly recommend it.