|Warning: The full synopsis contains "spoilers" which
describe key plot points. If you don't want to know the plot and outcome of this film then please
don't read any further.
Stave I - Marley's Ghost
Begins with a sinister and threatening musical piece which segues into a stirring rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and back again.
"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail . . . . .This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." This mysterious opening dialogue is a concatenation of two direct quotes from the Dickens story. The narrative continues with Ebenezer Scrooge leaving the London Stock Exchange early because no-one else is prepared to transact business at that time on Christmas Eve. He is approached by a debtor who owes him £20 but summarily dismisses his pleas for more time to pay and has no qualms about the man and his family going to a debtors prison (none of this, incidentally, is in the original Dickens story). Scrooge is portrayed as the logical outcome of the Capitalist ethic - emotion and empathy for one's fellow man is totally replaced by the necessity of balancing books and making a profit. This is also confirmed with his summary dismissal of the carol singers whilst returning to his office.
We now have a series of encounters which further define the depths to which his humanity has sunk: two benefactors; Scrooge's nephew; and his clerk Bob Cratchit (these encounters are not in the same orders as in the original tale).
In reply to the benefactors wishing to make provision for the poor and destitute who are suffering greatly at this time of year in want of common necessaries, Scrooge calmly replies with the infamous "Are there no prisons?"
speech (see Memorable Quotes). Alastair is superb throughout the film but possibly at his finest here; he is menacingly cold with his abrupt "Why?" when they inform him of their purpose to buy the poor provisions.
With implacable Capitalist logic Scrooge, on refusing to contribute to the charitable cause, intones that he helps to support the prison and workhouse establishments for such cases and ends on the chilling: "If they would rather die, they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population." (see Memorable Quotes)
Malthus, Darwin, Capitalism all in one. Our hapless benefactors have no hope of changing this attitude; it will take something more.
On the way out the benefactors pass Scrooge's nephew who has come to wish him the compliments of the season and invite him to celebrate Christmas at his house. Scrooge refuses and accuses him of marrying someone as poor as himself against his wishes. However, we are to find the real reason for Scrooges denial of his nephew in a later scene.
Before Scrooges final encounter in this Stave, the film intercuts to a scene of Tiny Tim staring through the toy-shop window at all of the gifts that the Cratchit family couldn't possibly afford.
The shop window is full of automatons/mechanical toys which, deliberate or not, is a stunning image of the
uncaring, robotic capitalist consumer society smiling down unfeelingly on the deprived. Tim's face
drops sadly as he sees the prized ship obviously being bought by another customer; but the situation is
redeemed when we see him warmly smile and laugh again and thus offers us hope. A nice touch here is the
way in which one of the automatons appears to be playing the film's background music on a harp.
We cut back to Scrooge in his office. Complaining about the inconvenience of Bob
Cratchit wanting the whole of Christmas day off yet still wanting to be paid. Whilst the latter runs off
to join the Cratchit Christmas celebrations, Scrooge takes his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy
tavern and then returns to his sparse lodgings.
We then have the wonderful scene where Scrooge sees in the door knocker Jacob Marley's
face (his seven years dead partner). The dated special effects are curiously apt. We now have some marvelously chiaroscuro-lit scenes accompanied by
terrifically atmospheric music. The acting/faces pulled by Alastair at the approach of Marley's
ghost are sublime. The ghost has returned to procure Ebenezer one last chance of redemption so that he
does not have to suffer the purgatorial state that Marley now endures. However, Ebenezer doubts his senses and
believes that they may have been affected by something he has eaten, leading to the wonderful retort:
"There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
Marley explains his situation and in doing so provides a salutary warning for Scrooge that he must involve himself in mankind and share in its life (see Memorable Quotes). On Scrooge proclaiming that Marley's misdeeds were only because he was "a good man of business", Michael Horden screeches what is probably the central message of the film: "Business!
Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business." (This is wonderfully acted and probably redeems Michael Hordern for the later continuity error). Marley informs Scrooge that he is to be visited
by three spirits without whose intervention he cannot hope to shun Marley's own fate. Marley points out the window
to other spirits who share the same fate as him and we see a rather eerie scene (accompanied by equally
eerie choral music) of spirits trying to interfere for good in human matters but who have lost that
power for ever. Scrooge runs and secures himself away in his four poster bed to hide from what else he may
Stave II - The Ghost of Christmas Past
Begins with the bell striking 1.00am and the four poster curtains being moved aside by a spiritual force. Alastair plays the meeting with the spirit with a suitable mixture of reluctance and humility. The spirit states its purpose as Ebenezer's "reclamation". The spirit's intention is to show Scrooge "shades of the things that have been" in order to move him towards some form of repentance/awakening.
The first "shade" is the young Ebenezer (played by George Cole) abandoned in a lonely schoolroom whilst all his friends have returned home for the holidays. His sister Fan enters to inform him that he can now come home because his father's attitude has mellowed towards him (it would seem his father is resentful towards him because Ebenezer's mother died giving birth to him). When Fan states that he will never be lonely again "as long as I live", the young Ebenezer forebodingly states, "Then you must live forever, Fan".
The next "shade" is a visit to Fezziwigs who displays the qualities of a kindly employer . Alastair plays the entire scene as if he is just about to break out into a dance. We see the first signs of understanding in Scrooge as he realises that Fezziwig had the power to make their service light or burdensome, by words and looks, and chose to be gracious towards them; he then makes the connection with the way he has been treating his own employees. We also see ES proposing to his beloved Alice and declaring "If ever I have a change of heart towards you , it'll be because my heart has ceased to beat". (This scene is not in the original story).
None of the following four "shades" are actually within the original story but are instructive in showing us Scrooge's descent into lonely miserliness. We see Fezziwig refusing a business offer because he wants to preserve a way of life rather than simply make money; the younger Ebenezer defends Fezziwigs decision and declares to Mr. Jorkin "I'd still say money wasn't everything, sir"
. The next "shade" is almost unbearable to Ebenezer as he sees his Sister Fan dying having given birth to his nephew Fred. She asks him to look after Fred. However, it becomes clear he inherits the sins of his father as he simply blames his nephew for her death. Alastair plays the scene very movingly, imploring his dead sister to forgive him.
It is perhaps this incident which is the tipping-point in his life for in the next "shade" we see that he has left old Fezziwig's office to work for Mr Jorkin who has offered more money. He makes the telling comment to Young Jacob Marley that one must steel oneself to survive in the world (see Memorable Quotes). The next "shade" is a tearful Fezziwig whose business has obviously been bought out by the up and coming Scrooge and Marley; Scrooge offers to retain one of Fezziwig's employees at a reduced salary. The process has begun.
Next we see Alice returning his ring due to the way he has changed towards the world. In anger, but with some justification, Ebenezer rages: "It's singular that the world that can be so brutally cruel to the poor professes to condemn the pursuit of wealth in the same breath". Alice counters equally effectively with: "You fear the world too much". Alastair clutches his heart in pain at the point the lover's finally part.
The next "shade" is where we see the what is now a plainly cutthroat Scrooge and Marley effectively obtaining Jorkin's bankrupt business for a token amount.
This is a beautifully played scene with both Alastair and Michael Hordern being deliciously arrogant and smug.The penultimate "shade" shows Scrooges total indifference to the death of his partner Marley and the final "shade" shows a pittliless Scrooge inheriting the business and all Marley's house and fortune.
Stave III - The Ghost of Christmas Present
The clock strikes 1.00am again and Scrooge pulls back the covers of his four poster bed. Alastair plays the part of a sinner who is too old and weary to be redeemed but simply wants to return to bed and pretend it is all a dream. The second spirit shows him miners celebrating Christmas and then the Cratchit family enjoying Christmas, (a good counterpoint to Scrooge's lonely existence). Once more, Scrooge begins to show concerns for others when he asks if Tiny Tim survives. At this stage Alastair is looking more gentle, contrite and concerned as Scrooge begs the spirit to say the child will live; the spirit, however, as previously, throws Scrooge's own words back into his face (see Memorable Quotes). Alastair looks to the floor in despair and tries to turn away although the spirit will not permit him to do so.
The spirit then shows Scrooge his Nephew's Fred christmas celebrations We next see his former fiancee, Alice, working in a shelter for the homeless (although this scene is not in the original story)
Before the Ghost of Christmas Present departs he reveals to Scrooge two figures beneath his robe:. "This boy is ignorance. This girl is want. Beware them both and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom". Scrooge asks: "But have they no refuge, no resource?". for the final time he has his own words thrown back in his face: "Are there no prisons? are there no workhouses?" Scrooge almost breaks down at his words.
|Stave IV - The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come
Scrooge remains on the street where the Ghost of Christmas Present left him; the bell strikes 1.00am again. As the Cratchit's mourn, the final spirit shows him the stool/crutch without an owner as the previous spirit had foretold.
The spirit then takes him to the pawnbroker/rag-bone man as Mrs. Dilber and the Undertaker have come to sell things they have stolen from his dead body. The spirit finally leads him to his own grave and tombstone. In total despair, Scrooge clutches the spirit's robes and repeatedly yells: "I'm not the man I was".
Scrooge wakes up in his bed.
The reclamation has taken place. Alastair portrays Scrooge as happy and excitable as a child on christmas morning; he dances and has an irresistible urge to stand on his head. He is fluttered and glowing with good intentions and "as giddy as a drunken man". So much so he scares Mrs Dilber.
"I don't know anything. I never did know anything; but now I know that I don't know anything", he declares. This has great echoes of Alastair's inauguration speech as Rector of Edinburgh University which discoursed on "the qualified fool" (i.e. the fool who knows he's a fool"). He even begins to sing childish rhymes. He calms Mrs. Dilber down but then mischievously frightens her by puffing up his hair and smiling madly. At this point Alastair looks at her with huge tenderness and affection.
Scrooge looks out the window and breathes in, relishing life. He has the butcher's prize turkey delivered to the Cratchit family.
He hesitantly approaches Fred's house and door; there is a priceless expression on the maid's face as she urges him on to open the living room door. We then have a tremendously moving scene in which Alastair/Scrooge humbly asks for forgiveness: "Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with, all these years."
On receiving forgiveness Alastair bounds into the Polka dance with huge gusto.
Finally, we are treated to the memorable scene the following day where Ebenezer fools Bob Cratchit that he is the same old Scrooge. Alastair has a wonderful giggling fit as he realises that Bob Cratchit thinks he has lost his senses when he raises his salary.
Scrooge: Are there no prisons?
Benefactor: Plenty of prisons.
Scrooge: And the Union Workhouses? Are they still in operation?
Benefactor: They are. I wish I could say they were not.
Scrooge: The Treadmill and the Poor Law, they're still in full vigor, I presume?
Benefactor: Both very busy, sir.
Scrooge: Oh! From what you said at first I was
afraid that something had happened to stop them in their useful course. I'm very glad to hear it.
Scrooge: I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.
1st Benefactor: Many can't go there.
2nd Benefactor : And some would rather die.
Scrooge: If they would rather die, they'd
better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
Scrooge: There's more of gravy than of
grave about you, whatever you are!
Bob Cratchit: It is only once a year, sir".
Scrooge: That's a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every 25th of December.
Marley's Ghost: It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men and if it goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world - oh woe is me! - and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.
Marley's Ghost: Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business.
Young Ebenezer: I think the world is becoming a very hard and cruel place Mr. Marley; one must steel oneself to survive it and not be crushed under with the week and infirm.
Alice: You fear the world too much.
2nd Spirit: I see a vacant seat in the poor chimney corner and a crutch without an owner carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the future the child will die.
Scrooge: Oh no, no, kind spirit, day that he
will be spared. 2nd Spirit: Why? if he be like to die, he'd better do it and decrease the surplus population.
2nd Spirit: This boy is ignorance. This girl is want. Beware them both and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.
Scrooge: But have they no refuge, no resource?
2nd Spirit: Are there no prisons? are there no workhouses?
Scrooge:I don't know anything. I never did know anything; but now I know that I don't know anything.