In an era when Christmas, or at the least the merchandising for it, begins sometime in late August, there is a certain charm in THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, which looks back to a time when it barely registered as a blip on the cultural radar. And the the to origins of the story that changed all that forever. As to whether that is for better or for worse, that is beyond the scope of this sumptuously mounted and thoroughly engaging film, and is, thus, left up to the viewer
The man in question in Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), introduced to us at an early peak in his career, enjoying a type of fulsome celebrity that is not unrecognizable to audiences 160 or so years later. Fêted on both sides of that Atlantic, his future seems assured, both financially and critically. Alas, three flops in a row leave him in dire circumstances, surrounded by an ever-growing brood of burbling children; interior decorators with expensive advice about frills, furbelows, and mantles made of Carrara marble; and fellow authors who eye his precipitous fall from public favor with less than charitable regard. Desperate to reclaim his former glory, and solvency that went with it, he proposes a daring plan to write and publish a Christmas story in the scant six weeks before it must go on sale for the holiday. His publishers demure, especially when Dickens proposes a ghost story, courtesy of an inspiration from the new Irish maid in his bustling home, forcing the author to risk everything on what most of the eccentric people around him consider a reckless gamble with first-class color plates, and gilt edging.
Played as a light, briskly paced comedy with dark overtones, the film finds its perfect Dickens in Stevens. This is a Dickens with whimsy and sentiment, but also one with a dark side, the seeds of which are shown in flashback as the author struggles with this story. Going into debt early on in order to pay for the publication of what will, of course, become A Christmas Carol, is revealed for the trauma it must have been as we glimpse his infinitely charming, unreasonably optimistic father (Jonathan Pryce), the model for Mr. Micawber, conjuring wonder in his children even as his lofty plans lead to ruin and debtor’s prison for him, and hard labor at a tender age for Charles. Indeed, how Dickens weaves his own life into the story is more than an academic exercise. The terror of abandonment is the stuff of nightmares. The way Dickens collected characters – a middle-aged couple dancing in the streets become the Fezziwigs, an ancient and lugubrious waiter is transmuted into the ghost of Marley, and Dickens’ unfortunate sister, her husband, and afflicted child, the model for the Cratchits – is a panorama of early Victorian life, with Dickens an ebullient tour guide. It is Scrooge’s origins, though, that are most arresting. A chance encounter in a graveyard, the heroic struggle for just the right phenome of a name, and the dramatic arrival of the character himself in the person of Christopher Plummer, make this Scrooge as indelible as that of Alistair Sim, while also providing a stage for the comic excesses, not to mention physical contortions, of writer’s block, as well as an insight into Dickens’ sometimes contradictory nature. Plummer is crochety and hectoring, relishing Scrooge’s sheer vindictiveness, a gleam in his eyes as they narrow in preparation for a well-aimed barb. Other characters pay similar visits to Dickens, talking back to him or offering encouragement, but it’s the Dickens-Scrooge relationship that provides the sharpest humor and a poignant counterpoint to the emotional stand-off between Dickens and his father.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS ends with the Dickens clan marveling at the the newly fashionable Christmas tree (introduced by Prince Albert from his native Germany) installed for the first time in their parlor. An eminently suitable foreshadowing of the riot of tinsel and sparkle that would soon inundate a world welcoming it with open arms. But this is a film as much about the magic of storytelling, from author’s mind to printed page or tablet screen. The passion, the toil, and timeless gift of a tale well told.