Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Old Sinner: Patrick Stewart (1999)



Patrick Stewart's version opens differently from any other I've seen. There's no London; there's not even any Christmas. It begins in the country with a hearse transporting a coffin on a dreary, sleet-filled day. The credits begin immediately and the film cuts to the two men walking behind the hearse. They're both unidentified at first, but one of them's played by Patrick Stewart, so...you know. He looks appropriately serious, but is that a hint of sadness in his eyes?

They reach a country church where other men wait. It's an austere bunch though; not like mourners at all. As the coffin is lowered into the ground, the name Jacob Marley can be seen on it as well as the years he lived: 1783 to 1836. It's cool that the story's told visually rather than through a narrator.

The priest is extremely formal as he officiates the burial. His opening remarks are appropriate too. "Man that is born of woman has but a short time to live and is full of misery." This is a miserable funeral on a miserable day for a miserable man. The priest continues, but his voice fades out as we get another good look at Patrick Stewart's still-unidentified character. His face - surprisingly, if you know he's Scrooge - is struggling with emotion. He wants to be stoic, but there's a quiver to his frown and he wobbles a little from side to side; unsteady on his feet.

As the priest's voice completely disappears, the action moves inside the church where Stewart is signing his name, Ebenezer Scrooge next to Marley's on the death register. This is something Dickens mentions in order to assure us of Marley's death in the book, but it's the only time I've seen it actually portrayed. Again, more showing instead of telling. Very nice.

Scrooge has a conversation with the priest and the other man who was walking behind the hearse, a fellow named Crump whose reason for being there is a mystery at first. The conversation is mostly small talk about Marley's being gone. Scrooge utters the line about being "dead as a doornail" and Crump wonders whether a doornail is actually "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." Departing from Dickens' thoughts on the subject (he liked the coffin-nail), Crump asks, "Why not a doorknocker?" foreshadowing Marley's appearance later.

Scrooge has apparently collected himself and is very practical. "Jacob's gone, and there's an end to it," he says. Well, maybe not so practical. He does call his old friend by his first name.

There's some additional discussion about the turnout. Crump notices that it's very poor for such an important businessman. The priest speculates that it's because it's Christmas Eve, but Scrooge seems genuinely confused by that. He also says that it was a grace that Marley was spared having to deal with grieving relatives at his bedside. During this, I suspect that Scrooge's practicality is actually the anger of grief. His brow is furrowed and his frown is pronounced, especially at the mention of Christmas as being any kind of a special day.

After a glass of wine, the priest tells Scrooge that he and Crump will leave Scrooge to grieve in silence. So Crump is apparently the undertaker and not an acquaintance of Scrooge's. Again, I like how this is left for the audience to figure out instead of revealing it through exposition.

Left alone, Scrooge stares at the register and tells Jacob that "the firm of Scrooge and Marley will miss your shrewd brain and keen eye," hinting that Scrooge's keeping Marley's name on the sign will be as much emotional attachment as thrift. He talks about the hard times the two of them have seen, pulling through and thriving "on the idleness of others." And he promises to keep the firm going and prosperous.

The film next cuts to the London skyline (no Saint Paul's, though) and in a shot similar to The Muppets Christmas Carol the camera pans down until we can see people hanging mistletoe through their windows and on down into the busy street where Scrooge walks amongst the hubbub. There's not a lot of the typical Christmas activity yet though. Children play in the streets, but there are no chestnut vendors or greenery on the shops. No one's wishing anyone a Merry Christmas.

Scrooge is very tall and erect, made even more so by his large top hat. He's neither powerful nor hunched over and miserable. He's just solitary. People don't scurry out of his way in fear like they do in other adaptations. They ignore him. And he ignores them too. It's a very lonely scene.

Eventually we start to see some geese hanging in windows and hear some holiday wishes. A few people even wish Scrooge a Merry Christmas, but he ignores them. When he reaches his shop, his clerk wishes him a good afternoon and helps him off with his coat. There's something in the way his clerk says, "Good afternoon" though. It's very gentle. Not fearful at all; just quiet. Almost concerned. Scrooge just grunts in return. A pitiful sound.

Outside, the "Scrooge & Marley" sign goes through a transformation, showing the passage of time. Those familiar with the story would be excused for thinking that the seven years passed between the funeral and London, but that's not so. They're passing now, as we watch. That explains the clerk's gentle concern too; Scrooge was returning from the funeral. As the camera stays on the now-rusted sign (we can barely see Marley's name anymore), we get the last of the credits.

The window of the shop is now incredibly dirty too. At first I thought it was soot from the street, but Scrooge's clerk is able to clean some of it off from the inside. The business - at least the appearance of it - is suffering from neglect. Scrooge clears his throat at his clerk, putting a stop to the impromptu cleaning.

The clerk reveals that he was looking at the sign and wonders aloud that if after seven years Scrooge will be removing Mr. Marley's name from it. That's a little weird for him to ask when he's been employed there for all of those seven years. Is this an annual request? Why pick now to ask it, other than to inform the audience about how much time has passed? It's a bit disappointing after the careful avoidance of exposition so far.

At any rate, Scrooge's response is that no, he's willing to let time continue to remove the name "at no cost to us." Which makes me realize that the shop's disrepair isn't neglect, but more likely a purposeful action on Scrooge's part to keep his promise to Marley. He wants the business to stay prosperous and keeping a close eye on expenses is one way he's going about it. It also disproves my earlier suspicion that Scrooge keeps the sign at least partially out of emotional attachment to it. There's no emotion in his face or voice as he talks casually about letting time remove Marley's name. Scrooge has apparently changed in the last seven years with the absence of his only friend.

Scrooge and the clerk get to work, but the clerk soon stops and goes over to the stove. He opens the coal scuttle and Scrooge stops him with a look. The clerk explains that the fire's going out, so Scrooge orders him to "Poke it, sir! Poke it!" The clerk does so and goes back to work, trying to keep his hands warm on his little candle flame. But Scrooge puts a stop to that with another glare.

The clerk is still quiet around Scrooge, but there's fear now too. Scrooge has become even more solitary since Marley's death. It's doubtful that his relationship with his clerk could ever have been characterized as warm, but now it's downright miserable.

1 comment:

Erik Johnson said...

A Most insightful Look at this adaptation. Thank You.

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