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The Man Who Invented Christmas

So I took a weekend off and I’m insanely behind schedule. At least I have a long weekend to catch up! So I went to my local multiplex for a fun round of Cinema Grab Bag to see which of a half-dozen critically acclaimed movies I’d be reviewing tonight. And luck of the draw was a strange one this time.

To call this film “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is admittedly rather pretentious. After all, it isn’t a movie about Jesus Christ or Santa Claus, never mind all the Winter Solstice traditions that predate both of them by a long shot. Rather, this is a movie about Charles Dickens (here played by Dan Stevens) and the story of how he wrote “A Christmas Carol”.

It would be fair to say that while Christmas itself predates Dickens by a good 1500 years (at least), precious few before or since did more than him to shape the holiday as we know it now. When we talk about Christmas as a time for peace on earth and good will toward all, it’s just as likely (if not more so) that we’re talking about Ebenezer Scrooge instead of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a time for family and absolving past differences. It’s a time of magic and nostalgia and romance. I don’t know how much of that was ingrained in the holiday before “A Christmas Carol”, but Dickens’ instant literary classic permanently and beautifully fused all of this into the Christmas spirit through a development arc so perfectly defined that we continue to see it in one adaptation after another over nearly two centuries later.

The story has been endlessly parodied and dissected in every conceivable way. On the surface, this may seem like a potential hazard for the film, since it seems like we already know the whole story backwards and forwards. On the other hand, the origin story behind “A Christmas Carol” itself isn’t so universally known that we couldn’t benefit from a movie about it. Moreover, the Carol has so much instantly recognizable imagery that could be cleverly utilized, providing us with an emotional window into the story. Yes, that’s a common tactic with these “story behind the story” movies (And seriously, how many of those have we already seen this year?) but it could still be quite effective here.

Well, the bad news is that the circumstances surrounding the book’s creation (as depicted in the movie, anyway) really aren’t all that interesting. Charles Dickens has had a string of flops, he’s up to his ears in debt, nobody will publish his crazy idea for a ghost story about Christmas (especially since he’d have to take the whole thing from zero to published in a mere six weeks to make Christmastime), so Dickens has to finance the whole thing himself and blah blah blah. That isn’t even getting started on the family drama with his wife, his kids, his house staff, his freeloading father (here played by Jonathan Pryce), and so on. There’s also Dickens’ friend John Forster (Justin Edwards), who hangs around for no given reason and has his own barely-existent romantic subplot. Oh, and let’s not forget all the flashbacks to Dickens’ youth: In the movie (as in real life), Dickens spent much of his childhood working in a factory while his father was locked away in a debtors’ prison.

I realize that given the subject matter, there was always going to be some risk of veering toward the saccharine. And while all of this isn’t anywhere near as sappy as it could’ve been, it’s still pretty dull and cliched. Really, all of this stuff is only compelling to the extent that it informs how and why Dickens wrote his holiday classic. Which brings us to the good news.

Somewhere around the half-hour mark, Dickens finally gets the divine inspiration to write his book and conjures Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) out of his imagination. Other characters quickly follow suit. As a result, we get so many different scenes of Dickens talking with his characters, trying to figure out who they are and how to get them to tell this story. What’s potentially even more amusing is that the characters start talking back, forcing Dickens to take a closer look at who he is and why this story has to be told the way it is.

(Side note: Speaking from my own experience as a writer, it’s equally disturbing and comforting how closely this presentation mirrors certain discussions I’ve had with my own characters.)

The movie speculates that while Scrooge may have started out as a pointed commentary on the selfishness and greed surrounding Dickens in Victorian London, the character also stems from the darkness within his author. Thus, as Dickens is forced to grapple with the question of if and how Scrooge can be redeemed for his trespasses, Dickens has to ask that same question of himself. As Scrooge must confront his tragic past and uncertain future, realizing and facing his fears along the way, so must Dickens. That’s not to say that the two stories are perfectly identical, of course — Scrooge and Dickens are still two very different people with very different sets of personal demons. But there are moments of overlap that make for surprisingly potent storytelling.

“A Christmas Carol” has such a flawless, textbook development arc that applying it to Dickens was frankly a stroke of genius. Not only is it used to show the flashes of inspiration that would eventually become the novel, thus telling the novel’s origin in a way that brings new life to the text, but it also gives Charles Dickens the character a satisfying development arc in a way that gracefully humanizes the historical figure. Alas, for better and for worse, this approach is only as strong as its main actor.

To be clear, it’s not that Dan Stevens is horrible — it’s just that he has a very limited range. Stevens does beautifully in scenes that demand great intensity, so he’s aces at portraying a tormented genius or a writer on a divinely inspired creative frenzy. But in those softer and slower moments, the spark just isn’t there. His Dickens is so much more alive when he’s talking to his characters, and he only seems barely present when he’s with anyone else, which I guess might say something about the character if that’s what they were going for.

Christopher Plummer is an absolute joy to watch, and Jonathan Pryce does the best with his part that anyone could’ve asked for. A shout-out is also due to Anna Murphy, who turns in a lovely performance as Dickens’ meek nanny and test audience (she also appears briefly in Dickens’ imagination as the Ghost of Christmas Past). Alas, nobody else in the supporting cast is worth a mention. It speaks volumes that Justin Edwards got so much screen time as Forster, and all I could think about him was “Who are you and why are you here?”

I’m sorry to say that The Man Who Invented Christmas falls flat when it veers away from Dickens’ process of creating “A Christmas Carol”. The good news is that this process takes up so much screen time, and it’s so delightful to watch, that this ultimately isn’t a dealbreaker. The film works beautifully as a fair, honest, and insightful portrait of Dickens, bolstered by the use of so much familiar text and imagery. Of course it helps that Dickens’ discussions with his characters are beautifully realized, Plummer is fantastic as Scrooge, and Stevens is pretty solid when he’s on point. Perhaps most importantly, this movie does a fine job of dissecting the social and personal themes of the source text while examining the finer details of the novel’s plot and why everything has to unfold exactly the way it does. (Whether Tiny Tim lives or dies is an especially prominent case in point.)

It’s a sweet little movie that serves as a reminder of why we need “A Christmas Carol.” This one turned out better than I expected, which admittedly isn’t saying much. It’s worth a look.

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