A few days ago I saw three films in a row I hadn’t seen before on different television channels. It was a lucky dip.
First up was Miss Congeniality (2000), a comedy about Gracie Hart (Sandra Bollock) a FBI agent who goes undercover in a Miss USA contest to locate a killer. The story is one of those transformation comedies that is based upon the Pygmalion structure. Overall, what saves this predictable romp is some snappy dialogue, and likable performances by Bullock, and a heap of excellent supporting cast members: Michael Caine, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, and Ernie Hudson.
The film doesn’t offer any surprises but it’s good-natured, and Bullock shines in this kind of role where she plays a klutzy misfit. The film doesn’t ever knock Bullock’s ass-kicking practical attitude out of her (thankfully). It says that occasional grooming and dressing up isn’t a bad thing, but that doesn’t invalidate the person underneath. Not too bad for a Hollywood flick.
Next up was The Transporter (2002). Frank Martin (Jason Statham), an ex-military guy who specialises in transporting people and items through risky and dangerous situations, gets entangled with Lai (Qi Shu) once he departs from his rules about how he runs his deals. Eventually, he has to go head-to-head with brutal European and Chinese gangs that are smuggling people. The flick is written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and directed by Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen.
The Besson roots of this film are obvious from the start: tough guy gets mixed up with the wrong (pretty) girl who pulls him into a life of fights, chases, chaos, and of course, love. Statham is a limited actor (I’m being generous, it’s the season after all). The first half an hour of the film falters somewhat because he has to hold the story, and as an actor he doesn’t have the chops. Yet, there is a very fine opening car chase that commands our attention, and a number of encounters with crazy bad people. Besson always has at least one total psycho in his action films (in this case it’s Matt Schulze).
But, once the action spins up into top gear I was remarkably entertained. There were a number of fight sequences that were superb. I particularly liked how bike pedals were used in one scene. Statham was in fine condition for this film and as a physical actor he does the job. I found my opinion of the film shifting into grudging admiration as it progressed. It’s a predictable flick, but it showcases a number of outstanding fights and chases, which should satisfy the ardent action fan.
Finally, some quality. On came the 1999 BBC TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol, starring Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge. There’s no need to repeat the plot I’m sure. This classic story of redemption is so finely judged and structured that it’s been remade many times. This production is flawless.
Patrick Stewart is brilliant as Scrooge. He’s truly awful in the beginning, and his big-hearted change by the end is well executed. The supporting cast is bursting with Britain’s finest, and the Beeb knows how to pull off a costume drama.
What I’d forgotten was Dickens’ keen insight to human nature and its worst excesses. It sent me back to the text, and as I read through it I realised that the BBC adaptation (written by Peter Barnes) is remarkably close to the original, and most of the dialogue is as Dickens wrote it.
Look at this wonderful introduction of Scrooge:
Oh! But he was a tight?fisted hand at the grind?stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self?contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
Whatever you think about Christmas (and I’ve been known to utter the occasional “Humbug” at this time of the year), this is a film that will cause you to re-evaluate your attitude to others. Dickens really understood the platitudes of the rich towards the poor, and in A Christmas Carol he gets to lay them out brilliantly.
The Spirit of Christmas Present is a particularly strong sequence in this film. The feeling of doom and misgivings build up throughout the piece until at the end Scrooge spies two feral children with the wizened Spirit:
‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. 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, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.
‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.
This moment is perfect for the launch of the final section with the Ghost of Christmas Future, in which Scrooge sees all that could befall him if he doesn’t change his attitude towards life. The scenes where his peers discuss his death, and the charwoman, undertaker, and laundress divvy up his clothing and bedclothes is particularly good. All that Scrooge has strived for in his life are shown to be futile in the final reckoning.
It’s not money that makes us happy (and Dickens doesn’t imply that poverty is somehow noble), but people. This is highlighted in the first section, when Scrooge revisits his apprenticeship with Mr. Fizziwig, and the Christmas parties he attended while young. When the Spirit of Christmas Past comments to Scrooge that it was a small matter (a couple of pounds only) to make people happy, Scrooge is quick to correct him:
‘It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. ‘It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’
No wonder people continue to adapt the works of Dickens to film and television. His observations are still valid and relevant.