Monday, December 12, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #28 - A Christmas Carol (Scrooge) (1951, dir. Brian Desmond Hurst)

When I initially agreed to review this movie, three months ago, I thought, “Hey no problem; December, my favorite X-mas movie - easy peasy right?” Then when I got closer to the due date, I started freaking out - “Oh what the hell can I possibly say about this movie? Everybody knows this tired story.” So, it was with some trepidation that I approached it. I hadn’t seen it in about five years, so as it opened I immediately started seeing things that I had forgotten about or new details about the sets I’d never noticed before. But, as usual the things that draw you into this movie are the almost miraculous writing by Dickens and one of the great performances in movie history by the sublime Alastair Sim.
First Dickens. How rare is it that a short work of fiction so accurately sums up a facet of the human condition that it speaks to literally everyone? How often does a fictional character’s name become an adjective, an insult, a state of mind? What level of genius does it take to think “I’ll take the happiest, most important day in western culture and use it to point out the worst inclinations of mankind?” Dickens did all these things when he wrote A Christmas Carol. All men have the tendency to turn away from the joy of his fellow man and instead see it as the foolishness of simple minds. When one is not happy, it is so easy to see the happy man as an idiot. And that is the lesson of this wonderful parable: one makes the life one has, and your life will be what you make of it. Ebeneezer Scrooge was a crabby old skinflint who hated people and in return was hated by the society he inhabited. It takes an intervention of supernatural proportions to convince him that he is wrong. When he is shown the folly of his ways, he has a revelation and becomes a better person. One might claim that Dickens copped out by resorting to the supernatural, but the three ghosts that visit Scrooge during Christmas Eve merely show him things that are true, and that he already knows. Dickens is really saying, if we look at the world around us, we will see the truth, and the truth can only lead a soul to kindness. This is a simple message that so few have heard, and even fewer have persuasively written about. That Dickens’ tale is so universally accepted as the embodiment of this message speaks volumes about his effectiveness as a writer. Scrooge’s experiences have a universal appeal to all who have seen darkness when looking in the mirror.
Dickens, like Shakespeare, was successful in capturing a fundamental truth about human nature, but bringing this truth to life is actor Alastair Sim whose portrayal of Scrooge accurately takes us from bitterness to fear to joy in less than two hours. Sim, a Scottish actor who made literally dozens of movies gets it just right. In the beginning he can barely contain his contempt for his fellow man, spitting out insults and looking down his nose at anything but the pursuit of wealth. When the spirits begin to visit him he beautifully follows the arc from fear to incredulity, to denial, to anger, and finally being broken down into acquiescence. The movie moves along at a breathless pace, whizzing us through the shame that is Ebenezer Scrooge’s life, as each painful detail registers on Sim’s rubbery face. Through his superb acting we watch a man go through a life changing series of events and find each change in his demeanor credible and heartbreaking. The real revelation of the movie comes in the last twenty or so minutes, when Ebenezer Scrooge, realizing he has made it through the night and is still alive, now has a chance to make amends for his bad behavior becomes a different man. His performance borders on hysterical, yet he shows just enough restraint to make it completely believable.
It was during this last fourth of the film that I found myself crying uncontrollably. I didn’t realize it, but I was taking the journey with Scrooge. Sim’s performance is so accurate, so true to the human frailties that plague us all, and his conversion at the end is so cathartic and joyous that we weep with him, not for him. Here I was dreading this movie, and at the end of it I am having the reaction that I desire from all the best art and yet so rarely get. It’s a small trick - it just requires the best writing in the English language coupled with a career making star turn by a great actor - no biggie.
- Paul Epstein

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