God Bless Us, Everyone for ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’

by Warren Cantrell on November 22, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Solid Rock Fist Up]

A love letter to Dickens and the holiday season, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fun romp through a familiar field. ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been reconceived, recycled, and rethought to death in the 170+ years since its publication, yet this is perhaps the first real attempt to get at the man behind the story through the lens of the classic Christmas tale itself. Taking the Shakespeare in Love route, The Man Who Invented Christmas pulls back the curtain on a beloved piece of literature, mixing the author’s experiences with the creation of the story itself to create a bonded tale that gives deeper meaning to a Christmas mainstay.

When the film opens, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a literary sensation, lauded by packed halls of adoring fans clamoring to get a look at one of the preeminent novelists of the day. Like a lot of celebrities, Dickens is a bit ahead of himself in terms of his finances, however, and despite his veritable rock star status, his writing royalties can’t quite keep up with his lifestyle. In an attempt to get ahead of his creditors, Dickens makes a bold play: he’s going to bankroll his next novel, absorbing any losses and keeping a majority of any profits.

The problem is, he doesn’t quite know what the book should be about, yet with Christmas roughly two months away, he figures he can rush something through just in time for the holiday. Undeterred by a trio of literary flops in his rearview mirror, Dickens begins bouncing off the walls of 19th century London, shaking the limbs of the city in the hope that inspiration might tumble out. Like Shakespeare wandering through the same streets some three centuries earlier, hearing remonstrations regarding curses on houses, Dickens draws pieces of his story out of the encounters and people he comes across.

These bits are some of the most enjoyable moments of the picture, and are enough to tickle even the most jaded Dickens critics. The silent epiphanies the author has when meeting a stooped waiter named “Marley” or seeing his crippled, crutch-carrying nephew all jump off of the screen, and are handled with a deft, playful touch. Director Bharat Nalluri only seasons his movie with these moments, however, and is careful about keeping the film grounded in the story, and not in a series of winking call-backs.

There’s also a good deal of interesting biographical information woven into the movie, which rounds out Dickens as a character, but also get to the heart of his literary oeuvre. A subplot about Dickens’ flakey, financially irresponsible father (Jonathan Pryce) fills in all the needed backstory necessary to give the audience an idea of who Charles is as a son, father, and husband. Bad decisions made by a patriarch decades earlier still scar the adult Charles, who can’t bear to see children suffer, or the rich speak with cruel disdain about the poor. All of this is drawn out and harnessed by the specter of Scrooge himself (Christopher Plummer), who appears in Charles’ imagination to guide the author in his Christmas Carol creation.

Stevens has a lot to carry in The Man Who Invented Christmas, and is visibly labored by the sometimes jolting shifts in tone. As the film transitions into its third act, and Dickens becomes frantic in his search for an ending to his story, he must confront the ghosts of his own past, present, and future. This is something of a departure from the light tenor of the first hour, yet more or less works since Dickens’ own story mirrors that of Ebenezer Scrooge’s emotional journey.

It all amounts to a creative and fun little jaunt through Victorian England (how often can one say that?), and is an emotional echo of a feel-good Christmas tale that has entertained generations. Sure this has been done before, what with the meta spin on ‘A Christmas Carol’ (see Bill Murray in Scrooged), or the larger genre of following a famous artist crafting one of their most notable pieces (Hopkins in Hitchcock, or the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love), but that doesn’t matter. It has worked before to varying degrees, and it works here.

The scenes where Dickens bounces ideas off of his sentimental housemaid, Tara (Anna Murphy), or when he has to explain the concept behind a friendly ghost to his exasperated illustrator (Simon Callow) are worth the price of admission alone. And while the set design and costumes are a bit polished (everything is noticeably clean and brightly lit, two things the 19th century wasn’t known for), the film doesn’t shy away from exploring the exploited underbelly of this era.

The pacing of the movie keeps things going at a good clip, and at about 110 minutes, the whole effort feels tight and well-conceived. Opening this week, likely in an effort to get ahead of the December onslaught of Star Wars and Oscar ringers, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming visit to familiar territory at the time of year when such a journey isn’t just appreciated, but expected. A delightful yarn about one of the most famous writers in western history, The Man Who Invented Christmas charms without overstaying its welcome, just like any respectable holiday guest.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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