With dazzling visuals, abundant holiday charm and a committed performance from Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast”), The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t quite garner a “humbug.” In fact, it is a real pleaser — light and playful as it may be. The origin story simplifies Charles Dickens’ trials and tribulations while writing “A Christmas Carol.” The experience helped define the modern version of Christmas, and at the time pulled a straying population back into the holiday fold.
From snowy cobblestone streets to shop windows and form-fitting costumes, the cinematography is both charming and convincing, transporting viewers back to 1840s England, a contradictory time of both elegance and factory gloom.
Bharat Nalluri’s holiday film does not necessarily set out to become a standard snowy classic with elaborate décor, St. Nicholas and his army of elves. Instead it’s a story about stories — a writer overcome by that “divine frenzy” that ultimately equates to tight prose. The film is a triumph in its careful dialogue between its leading characters, both real and imagined. Dickens is portrayed as a committed and meticulous literary genius who carried out engaging conversations with his characters. This makes the film slightly more dimensional than a similar topic you might find in a TV movie. Further, while the film glosses over Dickens’ marital strife, it remains engaging throughout.
The delicate balance between fact (however revisionist it may be) and fiction is a riveting bit of filmmaking that both characterizes Stevens’ Dickens and drives the narrative. The story picks up in London, 1843, when Dickens, then a thirty-something, struggles to develop his next novel. He has just come off a successful run with “Oliver Twist,” but is questioning his literary future after a string of “flops.”
Dickens, ever the socialite, is racking up debt while his wife, Kate Dickens (Morfydd Clark, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), comes to terms with his erratic writing style. Helped by friend and agent figure John Forster (Justin Edwards, “Love & Friendship”), Dickens sets out to write a holiday novella. Without the support of his publisher, Dickens decides to self-publish. Meanwhile, he must handle his clingy debtor of a father, John (Jonathan Pryce, “Game of Thrones” TV series) and develop one of the most recognizable characters in literary history, Ebenezer Scrooge (played by a brilliant Christopher Plummer, “Remember”). To ensure Scrooge is as unique as possible, Dickens embarks on a journey with the three Christmas ghosts as the story comes to life.
The film’s production values certainly stand out, especially the aforementioned costumes. As Dickens forges “relationships” with his many literary characters, each arc is given its due diligence, including Tiny Tim’s, which is a testament to the film’s script and editing.
One of the neatest facets of a historical film is the opportunity to recreate a world — in this case a London marked with top hats and social statuses. The Man Who Invented Christmas does just that, blending Dickens’ personal life with an increasingly industrial London. One particularly fleshed-out setting is an abandoned workhouse Dickens once found himself in. The spot becomes a crucial crossroads for Dickens’ own demons and his bout with the obstinate Scrooge.
Outside of the commendable production values — and the snowy London streets — Nalluri’s success can be traced right back to the storyboard. Susan Coyne’s screenplay from Les Standiford’s book lends itself nicely to a cinematic piece, even if it felt like more of a colorful stage production at times. It is certainly gratifying to see where Dickens pulled elements from his personal life for the novella.
The underlying, contemporary political themes also work themselves into the narrative quite seamlessly — as Dickens aims to stand for the burdened man. Messages of wealth, inequality and secularism shine through.
Altogether, Edwards, Pryce and Donald Sumpter (as Jacob Marley) deliver sturdy performances in their supporting roles. Plummer also stands out as the “old miser,” and delivers another dimension to the character — as he wrestles with literary decisions alongside Dickens.
The Man Who Invented Christmas might not be a “rush to the theater”-type film, but it is certainly an adventurous and gratifying origin story about one of the most identifiable tales in modern history. Something says that if you love Christmas, then you should be glimpsing Dickens’ version of it. Just beware there are a few (Gothic) ghosts who come along for the ride.