The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) Review

A movie that works just well enough.

by Steve Pulaski

Films about the writing process and the creativity needed to fuel it are intensely different to capture, for a writer can only illustrate so many scenes of an author clacking at a typewriter before an audience feels like they're being punked. Having said that, director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and writer Susan Coyne (Mozart in the Jungle) have crafted an intriguing personification of the creative process by having the sufferer be the man who wrote one of the fastest-selling and most popular stories of all-time.

It's Charles Dickens and his timeless Christmas Carol, which was published back in 1843 and has since gone on to be one of the most beloved stories of all time. The title of the film surrounding its creation and hasty publication is one that provides an intriguing bit of history along with it. Before Dickens's novel, Christmas was a holiday for the wealthy; "the Christmas spirit" didn't exist and neither did much of a reason for anyone who wasn't notably well-off to celebrate it. When Dickens introduced the world to the lovable cynic Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and other characters, audiences connected with them and the overarching morals of being kind and generous to others. One could even say Scrooge's pessimism was reflective of a disillusioned culture that didn't even realize they themselves needed to feel something.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a serviceable biopic that thankfully chooses a piece of Dickens's life rather than attempt to gift-wrap us a messy, comprehensive story that shortchanges the complexities and resonance of each of his works. We find Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, doing his best Eddie Redmayne, on a hot-streak, yucking it up on a high-falutin American tour following the success of novels Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Fast forward over a year later, and the well that was the riches has dried up considerably after three bombs and Dickens is in search of his next big novel. He comes up with the idea to publish a Christmas story called A Christmas Carol, with the contemptible codger Scrooge at the center and the intent to give more meaning and significance to the modestly celebrated holiday.

As soon as he conceives Scrooge as his main character, the character begins to make recurring appearances in his daily life. Scrooge is played by Christopher Plummer, who is convincing enough to make you wish for yet another adaptation of Dickens's book with him at the helm. Other characters appear at random times and pester Dickens when he's locked away in his study, pacing restlessly and trying to concoct a structure and a conclusion for his story. Adding frustration is William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp), whose repeated tendency to bring up the harsh criticisms from critics of Dickens's latest work, and results in further handicapping of the creative process. Factor in Jonathan Pryce as Dickens's father, who is responsible for his son's rough childhood, and you have a story that's a few beats away from being less about the creative process and more about a downward spiral into insanity.

Coyne's narrative works best when it erects a hybrid that shows self-doubt, which leads to interpersonal torment, and fantastical elements that bring A Christmas Carol to life, resulting in a compelling juxtaposition alongside Dickens's own life. When it tries to highlight the external elements of Dickens's life that have an effect on him in the present day, it admittedly loses focuses as an instance where it's trying to do too much to identify the man. The scenes involving Dickens's father and early life as a factory-boy are also terribly drab and dull, taking us away from moments where we could've continued feeling the claustrophobia of Dickens's stuffy study that eventually inspired enough to produce such a riveting work. Coyne's screenplay never allows much to develop in-depth before she diverts her attention to another moment in time, past or present, and while nothing in the film is notably poor, nothing is executed to the level of greatness this or Dickens's story demands.

The Man Who Invented Christmas will likely work well-enough to please the two-or-three-year-maximum movie-crowd that will giggle along with Plummer's cantankerous quips and admire Stevens's clear and present fascination with playing one of the most renowned authors who ever lived. There is an unevenness when it comes to a film that's trying to show the creation of the Christmas spirit (in two senses) while also trying to be the provider of such good cheer, but that shaky ground doesn't rattle quite as much as you'd expect, and therein is one of the biggest credits to Coyne's story. The fumbles, for one, are the ones I least expected, and perhaps Dickens could say the same about his three works pre-Christmas Carol.

Steve's Grade: C+

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