Man Who Invented Christmas, The (Ireland/Canada, 2017)

November 22, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Man Who Invented Christmas, The Poster

The Man Who Invented Christmas conflates the biography of Charles Dickens (at least until 1843) with the events of one of his seminal works, A Christmas Carol. Watching the film leads one to the conclusion that, although the story might have worked as a straightforward bio-pic or a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, it founders as-is. The way it has been presented, with forced and artificial junctions, keeps the viewer at arms-length from the story and creates questions about the historicity of some scenes.

The movie opens with a brief prologue set during the author’s 1842 New York city visit then picks up again in 1843 as, with debts burgeoning and another child on the way, Dickens (Dan Stevens) finds himself in desperate need of a successful book – at a time when he is “blocked.” The majority of the film depicts the various external influences that caused different elements to be present in A Christmas Carol as well as interactions between the author and one of his most famous characters, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). His love-hate relationship with his spendthrift father, John (Jonathan Pryce), provides some dramatic fuel as do his memories of long, unpleasant days spent as a child working at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse.

The film moves into questionable territory when it sets up Scrooge as an analog for Dickens and the “conversations” between writer and creation don’t work despite a strong performance by Christopher Plummer as the latter. The depictions of a few limited moments from A Christmas Carol are truncated and half-hearted; those hoping for more than a flavor of the story would be better served by seeking out one of several excellent adaptations. (The most notable, although by no means the only ones, are 1951’s classic Scrooge and a 1984 made-for-TV version starring George C. Scott.) The movie also offers a feeble dramatization of the writing process, having us believe that Dickens ranted and raved and talked to unseen apparitions while composing his story. (The reality is that most of A Christmas Carol was developed during long walks the author took through the streets of London.)

The movie’s attempts to humanize the legend are only moderately successful due in part to a lackluster performance by Dan Stevens (who played The Beast in the recent live-action adaptation of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast). Some is also the fault of the screenplay, which seems determined to mix the accepted real-life influences of A Christmas Carol with a litany of made-up ones. The idea that Dickens came up with the “elusive” ending during a late-night visit to the ruins of the blacking warehouse is the height of absurdity and is neither believable nor dramatically sound. To give some credit to director Bharat Nalluri, the set design is exceptional. The Victorian Era London is impeccably crafted, which makes Stevens’ anachronistic performance all the more off-putting.

The title refers to Dickens’ role in reviving Christmas traditions and observances during the Victorian era. At the time when he wrote A Christmas Carol, the holiday was regaining popularity but there’s little doubt that the publication of the novella reinforced this trend. Social aspects of Christmas, especially those related to giving and spending time with family, were influenced by A Christmas Carol, so it’s not unreasonable to assert that the novelist was, to a degree, “the man who invented Christmas”. Unfortunately, the movie bearing that name isn’t nearly as magical as one might hope. As interesting as it might sound to have an author and his creation conversing about weighty subjects like generosity and social injustice, the concept is more tantalizing than the execution. In terms of content, The Man Who Invented Christmas contains nothing inappropriate for family viewing, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a family that would find the experience enriching. It’s unlikely that watching this film will become the next great holiday tradition.

Man Who Invented Christmas, The (Ireland/Canada, 2017)

Director: Bharat Nalluri
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Ian McNeice, Donald Sumpter, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Valeria Bandino
Home Release Date: 2018-03-06
Screenplay: Susan Coyne, based on the book by Les Standiford
Cinematography: Ben Smithard
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Bleeker Street Releasing
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2017-11-22
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1