Wednesday, December 19, 2012
'Merry Christmas, Uncle!' | Patrick Stewart (1999)
In TNT's A Christmas Carol, Fred is up to no good. He walks by the dirty, office window, peeks in at Cratchit, and smiles maliciously. He practically sneaks into the office, quietly closing the door behind him and holds his finger up to his lips to keep Cratchit quiet.
In return, Cratchit gives a conspiratorial gesture and a sinister sneer, then watches as Fred surprises Scrooge with a loud, "Merry Christmas, Uncle! And God save you!" Scrooge is visibly startled and takes a couple of seconds to compose himself. He doesn't look at Fred, but returns to work with a dismissive groan (replacing the traditional "bah") and a "humbug."
Dominic West (The Wire, John Carter) at first plays Fred as an infuriating jerk. He swaggers through the beginning of the scene with an insincere smile, egging Scrooge on. Since Patrick Stewart's Scrooge is as lonely as he is miserable, Fred's treatment of him almost borders on bullying. There's no doubt that Scrooge has brought his loneliness on himself, but Fred's not helping. I imagine that this is a character who's made this holiday visit many times over the years and is tired of it, so he's making it more entertaining for himself.
Scrooge is no victim though. When he says, "What right have you to be merry?", he follows it up with "You're poor!" Full stop. No "enough." It's an accusation and a judgment. Scrooge despises his nephew for his poverty. It comes up again later when he says, "Much good it has done you. Much good it will ever do you!" Most actors toss away this line as if Scrooge is just trying to get rid of Fred at this point. Stewart says it like he's pissed. Not at Christmas, but at Fred. Christmas is just a symptom of something more seriously wrong with their relationship.
The dialogue plays out from these perspectives for a while. Fred's sneeringly digging at his uncle; Scrooge is venomously blasting back. When Fred finally arrives at his big speech, it sounds genuine, but he's defensive - almost whiny - as he gives it.
He's encouraged by Cratchit's clapping though. Cratchit has actually gotten out of his chair and been drawn into Scrooge's office by the speech. He applauds enthusiastically, but abruptly stops at a glance from his boss. "You said something, Mr. Cratchit?" The clerk looks deflated as he says, "No, sir." Scrooge is deadly serious when he goes on to threaten Cratchit's job. The clerk slinks back to his own desk.
Fred softens at this point. He drops his defensiveness and asks his uncle not to be hard on Cratchit. "It's all my fault," he admits. Scrooge nods agreement and goes into the "You're quite a powerful speaker" line, but Fred continues to show vulnerability. When he says, "Don't be cross, Uncle," and invites Scrooge to dinner, he sounds for real.
Scrooge, on the other hand, is still horribly pissed. He's been poking at the dying fire (the same one Cratchit was trying to revive in the previous scene), but he spins violently on Fred. "I'll see you damned first!"
Fred pleads, "But why?!" as Scrooge marches back to his desk.
Like in the original text, Scrooge's "Why did you marry?" suggests that that's an important part of the reason he's so angry with Fred. Since he's already dug at Fred's poverty a couple of times, we don't need a lesson in Victorian mores to understand what's going on here. We just need to read between the lines.
Fred explains that he married because he fell in love and Scrooge laughs as if he can't believe what he's hearing. Unlike George C. Scott's vulnerable mocking, Stewart's Scrooge isn't letting himself even consider that lack of love might be part of his problem. He truly doesn't believe in it.
The rest of the scene is right out of Dickens. Fred reminds Scrooge that he never came to see Fred before he got married and this shuts Scrooge up. He starts his "good afternoon"ing right there, leading me to believe that Fred's onto something that Scrooge doesn't want to admit. We'll keep an eye out to see if that's explained later.
Fred's vulnerability continues a bit longer through "Why can't we be friends," but as Scrooge sticks to his "good afternoon"s, Fred begins to realize that he's getting nowhere...just like all the other visits. He returns to his smarmy self as he bestows his final Christmas wishes on Scrooge. His exchange with Cratchit before leaving feels like it's as much for Scrooge's benefit as anything else.
Once Fred's gone, Scrooge gets up to watch him through the shop window and catches Cratchit smiling. "You find my nephew amusing, Cratchit." The clerk tries to keep his humor in front of his boss, but he's unable. His face has fallen before he's finished saying that Fred is a pleasant fellow.
He gains a little courage though when Scrooge accuses him of being "another Christmas lunatic." Cratchit averts his eyes, but responds, "If you say so, sir."
That actually seems to please Scrooge. He looks amused when he says, "Oh! It seems you doubt me, Mr. Cratchit. What are you then?"
It's an unfair, nonsensical question, but Cratchit answers as best he can. "Your clerk, Mr. Scrooge."
Scrooge returns to his desk mocking his employee for "babbling about Merry Christmas" while receiving such a small wage. He's grinning cruelly as he announces that he'll retire to Bedlam. We may have seen Scrooge in some vulnerable moments in the opening scenes, but that's all gone now. Now we see the mask he wears for everyone else. And we see why people hate him.
With most adaptations, we end the scene there, but this one cuts outside where a couple of gentlemen ask Fred for directions to Scrooge and Marley's. They explain that they're collecting charitable donations and Fred is obviously shocked. They don't notice though and he lets them go without a warning, but with an amused, stunned look. It's a nice transition if for no other reason than it's a different twist on the usual.