Friday, December 21, 2012
A Christmas Carol and Alastair Sim
I didn't want to let the blog languish too long here in the holiday season, so I thought I'd mention Alastair Sim's turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1951's A Christmas Carol. Actually, the film was called Scrooge in Great Britain, and it's an indication of how powerful Sim's performance is; his Scrooge dominates the movie.
That might seem like a no-brainer, the notion that Scrooge would loom over any adaptation of Dickens' Christmas classic. Still, many versions seem more concerned with the fantastic elements and structure of the narrative than with the characters. Sim's portrayal of Scrooge eschews the often cartoonish way the character is shown, and is, for my money, the most naturalistic and believable screen Scrooge.
Rather than the screeching, opaque character that inhabits most versions, Sim's Scrooge is world-weary, sarcastic, and bitter. There is a history to his harsh worldview, a background that is often lost in the portrayals by lesser actors. Certainly those movies may show that backstory, as revealed in the journey to Christmas Past that all such films must take, but Sim lives in that backstory, evoking a real human with reasons for his hateful demeanor.
We see a character arc for Scrooge in the Christmas Past sequences that is remarkable for how well it shows Scrooge's gradual descent from a decent, even idealistic, young man - portrayed in the earliest flashbacks by George Cole, who gives a performance that is often subtle and effective, and which seamlessly melds into Sim's - into the misanthrope of later years. The movie doesn't beat the viewer over the head with the notion of nurture vs. nature. We see Scrooge molded into the man he becomes by circumstances and by his own conscious, increasingly cynical decisions. We see a glimmer of decency, of likability, linger far into his adulthood, but it also seems inevitable, and almost profoundly sad, that he will become the Scrooge we meet at film's beginning.
I've often thought about whether the epiphany Scrooge experiences is too quick, too unnatural. I've seen this movie many times over the years, and that has always been the part that gave me pause. My most recent viewing, which I did with an eye towards keeping in mind my misgivings about Scrooge's metamorphosis at the end, revealed something that hadn't occurred to me before. The giddiness with which Sim shows Scrooge reacting to the knowledge of being alive and well on Christmas day made perfect sense now. It was not just pure existential relief, but also the Scrooge of old was finally able to resurface after being tightly held behind walls built over a lifetime. This younger-in-spirit Scrooge suddenly saw a chance to make new decisions, new choices, that would lead to a new life. It was pure joy out of being released, or, more accurately, releasing himself, from spiritual chains he'd accumulated over the years, the very type of chains that burdened Marley beyond the veil between life and death. It was Sim's deft, nuanced portrayal that made this all clear.