Film Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Diverting trifle about the making of 'A Christmas Carol.'
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With its grand score, detailed period sets and flashy shots, Bharat Nalluri’s (Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day) adaptation of the nonfiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas revels in the thingness of the movies. One can’t help but wonder if this story about Charles Dickens and the making of his A Christmas Carol really needed to be told on the big screen, if such a lot of money really needed to be slung about in service of so many bright costumes and for the salaries of so many name actors, given that the narrative at the center of it all is such a slight one. The film leaves a faint impression but is diverting while you watch it.

Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, exercising every muscle in his hale face) is a world-renowned author beloved for his ability to tug at his readers’ heartstrings. But it’s been some time since he had a hit—his last three attempts all flopped. With extensive renovations to his London townhouse underway and his wife newly pregnant with their fifth, Dickens is in debt and desperate for some cash. So he decides to write a new book. This delights his publishers…until they realize their somewhat tarnished golden boy wants to write a Christmas book.

Impossible. The holiday has gone out of favor, not to mention it’s already fall; there simply isn’t time for Dickens to write the book, have it illustrated and printed all before Christmas. But Dickens will not be dissuaded. With his kind friend John Forster (a delightful Justin Edwards of Love and Friendship) by his side, he decides to prepare and release the story himself. He has yet to write a page of it. He has just six weeks to complete it.

A period of creative madness ensues. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Dickens’ mother and sweet but irresponsible father (Jonathan Pryce). Nearly every time Dickens gets going in his study, someone knocks upon his door and “real life” rudely intrudes upon his “process.” Of course, many of these interruptions are as important as the writing itself. Whenever he hears a name or idea, or sees an image or person that strikes his fancy, Dickens enjoys an “a-ha!” moment. Thus we learn that the name for A Christmas Carol’s Marley comes from an elderly waiter, the model for Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) is an old man Dickens sees in a graveyard, and the character of Tiny Tim is inspired by his sickly nephew.

The problem of how to dramatize the writing process is well known. Susan Coyne’s script gets around the difficulty by making Dickens’ characters talk to him, pushing him to a state of distraction matched only by the flesh-and-blood friends and family who demand he act like a human being as well as an author. If the characterizations of types like the long-suffering wife and the impoverished but innately sensitive young girl are broad, the plot moves along quickly enough, the dialogue is snappy enough, the visuals are enchanting enough, and Stevens’ face is expressive enough to distract from the fact that there really isn’t much happening here at all.

Perhaps oddly for a film about the making of a classic story, it is not in the story of The Man Who Invented Christmas that the film’s appeal lies. Instead, the movie diverts because of the masterful handling of its aesthetic elements (score, sets, facial muscles). It’s a shiny toy that pleases while you play with it, but come tomorrow or the next day, it will likely lie forgotten.

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