Only Ebenezer Scrooge would knock TNT’s “A Christmas Carol.” Handsome, wholesome and finely tuned, the cable web’s take on Charles Dickens’ 1843 masterwork is TV at its classiest. Treated to Hallmark touches at every turn and Patrick Stewart’s graceful performance, viewers who aren’t yet in the holiday spirit will be ready for the tinsel and mistletoe as soon as the opening credits roll. Bah humbug? No way.
Oft-told tales are difficult to pull off, but there are many nifty strokes here that elevate the story above most interpretations. True to the novel, but peppered with sharp special effects that don’t encumber the narrative, this one gets it right. And from the wonderful set pieces to the wintry locales, “Carol” contains a beauty rarely captured in today’s telepic arena. Director David Jones displays a smooth hand that adds mounds of style to the rendition, and his approach to Peter Barnes’ script is a tribute to delicate staging.
The story is still ageless. Miserly Mr. Scrooge intimidates carolers, fends off charity workers and terrorizes his lone employee, Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant). But after the specter of ex-partner Jacob Marley (Bernard Lloyd) visits him, along with a parade of phantoms, Scrooge’s hum gets de-bugged.
As Christmas Past, Joel Grey, decked out in silken white sheeting and a radiant tracking light, carries Scrooge back to relive the pain of bad Decembers gone by. Desmond Barrit’s Christmas Present applies the guilt card, fairly questioning the reasons behind his client’s blistering hatred of humanity. Christmas Future (Tim Potter) is hidden beneath a black robe, bearing two very menacing eyes as he proposes a humbling destiny.
Stewart as Scrooge is such a perfect piece of casting that it will be hard to imagine anyone else as the sour ol’ tightwad in years to come. For a decade, the thesp has toured with “Carol” across the country, and the experience shows; his initial inflections are full of genuine antipathy, and his transformation to a goodhearted citizen is entirely believable. With a robust eloquence, he speaks Barnes’ words with so much polish that even his bitterness is delightful.
The supporting actors are also first-rate. Grey and Barrit enjoy their flashy parts, but they’re stately apparitions, trading in their rattles and chains for more pragmatic attributes. Grant’s Cratchit is a loving and sympathetic character who dotes on Tiny Tim (Ben Tibber) and befriends unfriendly souls.
But the strongest element here is the overall execution. Robert Halmi Sr.’s epics have always embraced razzle-dazzle visuals, some outstanding (“Merlin”) and some mediocre (“Leprechauns”). “Carol” is one of the best so far, because its different parts are all solid; the allure is in the whole package and not just the tricks. And while fairy dust and walking through walls may not seem like the freshest use of technology, the restrained magic is very effective.
From Stephen Warbeck’s score to the reproduction of 19th century architecture at the famed Ealing Studio, tech credits are smashing.