Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol gets the sort of origin story normally reserved for superheroes in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Bharat Nalluri’s whimsical comedy/drama wants to have its Christmas cake and eat it, too, by attempting to be both a (highly fictionalized) biographical portrait of Dickens and, simultaneously, a creative spin on the oft-dramatized tale. It doesn’t fully succeed at either, but it does offer enough enjoyable Masterpiece Theater-style moments to entice Anglophiles and those who can never get enough of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dan Stevens plays Dickens, and if the casting initially seems inappropriate it must be remembered that the author was only 31 when he wrote his holiday classic. As the film, based on the book by Les Standiford, would have it, Dickens was in severe financial straits after writing three flops in a row. When he comes up with the idea for the book that would become A Christmas Carol, his publishers decline to get involved. Christmas is but a “minor holiday,” they demur. Facing a tight deadline as the holiday approaches, Dickens writes the book in a feverish six weeks and publishes it himself. The rest, as they say, is history.
The film’s most resonant moments come in the early section, when Dickens runs into various people whom we recognize as inspiring his legendary characters. A heartless businessman tells him that the poor should hurry up and die so as to “decrease the surplus population,” while the first thing an elderly miser (Christopher Plummer) utters is, you guessed it, “Humbug.” In some cases, the associations are very close to home, such as his sickly young nephew who clearly brings to mind Tiny Tim.
Dickens’ family life is depicted at length, including his relationships with his loving wife Kate (Morfydd Clark), his well-meaning but irresponsible father John (Jonathan Pryce) and a new servant, Tara (Anna Murphy), whose bedtime stories to his children provide further fuel for his gestating book. Flashbacks to his troubled, poverty-stricken youth call to mind other such works as Oliver Twist.
Like many films attempting to explore the artistic process, The Man Who Invented Christmas becomes heavy-handed and literal. Dickens begins experiencing fantastical episodes involving his characters, including the ghosts, that seem more indicative of schizophrenia than creativity. And the attempt to link Scrooge’s eventual spiritual conversion with Dickens wrestling with his own inner demons feels labored at best.
Still, there are many pleasures along the way, including the effective evocation of Victorian-era London. Susan Coyne’s screenplay presents an amusing portrait of London literary society, with Dickens and his best friend and agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) hanging out the city’s famed Garrick Club. In-between complaining about the atrocious food and London’s terrible fog, Dickens is greeted by none other than William Makepeace Thackery (Miles Jupp), who gleefully reminds him of his recent failures.
Then there are the terrific lead performances. Stevens conveys Dickens’ complex, self-absorbed personality with an enjoyably light touch; Plummer is such a sly, comic delight as Scrooge that it makes you wish he were given the opportunity to play the role in full; and Pryce makes the proud father thoroughly endearing. The supporting players include a gallery of veteran English actors, including Simon Callow (who has made playing and writing about Dickens a career specialty) as a grumpy illustrator.
Production companies: Parallel Films, Rhombus Media, Mystic Point Productions, The Mob Film Company, Nelly Films Limited, The Mazur/Kaplan Company
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Donald Sumper, Miles Jupp, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Ian McNeice, Bill Paterson
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriter: Susan Coyne
Producers: Susan Mullen, Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean
Executive producers: Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Andrew Karpen, Laurie May
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Paki Smith
Editors: Stephen O’Connell, Jamie Pearson
Costume designer: Leonie Prendergast
Composer: Mychael Danna
Casting: Amy Hubbard
Rated PG, 104 minutes