Friday, September 28, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There is Yet Another Version of 'A Christmas Carol': "The Ghosts of Dickens' Past" (1998)

You have probably never heard of this decent little Canadian film. You have, however, heard this story done to death, most recently featuring Jim Carrey and a whole lot of computer animation.

The author Charles Dickens (a good Christopher Heyerdahl) is in a funk. His last novel did not sell well, and he needs to come up with an idea that will bring in the money for his wife (Cary Lawrence) and children. Dickens grew up poor, and refuses to go back down that road again. He takes to the mean streets of London at night, and is almost robbed before being saved by a little girl (Jennifer Bertram). Dickens keeps seeing the girl here and there, most notably when accompanying the rich widow Mrs. Burdett-Coutts (Sheena Larkin) to a poor school.

After retrieving the girl's money from the same robbers who tried to get him, the girl follows Dickens home and takes him back into the London streets. This time, she shows him what he should be writing about, not what he thinks might sell. The girl, and her family, are mysterious, and eventually Dickens tries to track her down again, coming up with an idea for a short novel that takes place around Christmas.

While an imaginative idea, you can discern from the title that this film is a variation on "A Christmas Carol," putting Dickens in the role of Scrooge (a name never mentioned in the film). Screenwriter Lavoie bookends the film with Dickens telling the story to an overly eager young writer (Seann Gallagher), and structures everything very well...but this is still "A Christmas Carol," adding to the dozens of adaptations that have come out over the years. One thing that does work is not turning Dickens into a Scrooge. He is likable throughout, and not a villain. He wants security through money, needing the little girl to show him that not all poor people are miserable (a lesson many of us are still grasping with).

Heyerdahl's shock of hair is startling at first, he looks like he should be fronting Men Without Hats, but his earnest performance won me over. Lavoie writes period dialogue, and the performances help the viewer understand what is going on. Neibaur's direction lends some class to the production, 1843 London is not a cheap look to achieve. Most beautiful is Yves Belanger's cinematography. Natural light is used, or seems to be used, and the picture itself is crystal-clear without being too nice and clean for such a depressing place.

"The Ghost of Dickens' Past" is short, and some of the dialogue scenes are deathly dull, but I am recommending this for what it is, a good try at an overtold tale. (* * * *) out of five stars.