Movies about writers writing and painters painting don’t usually grab audiences by the throat. For one thing, the creative process tends to be internal, and for another, watching a pen scratch across a page or a brush glide over a canvas doesn’t tend to compete visually with the chariot race in Ben-Hur or the mother ship rising over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Still, there have been some exceptions, particularly when the main character is up to something else as well. Shakespeare in Love got enormous entertainment value out of its main character’s creative process, partly by wrapping it up in a romance. The Man Who Invented Christmas finds entertainment in Charles Dickens writing his classic A Christmas Carol, partly by paralleling some spiritual redemption for its hero with that of his character Ebenezer Scrooge.
Few books have been adapted, faithfully or otherwise, as often as A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge himself played by a diverse host of actors ranging from Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Mr. Magoo and Mickey Mouse. The redoubtable Christopher Plummer tackles the role here, and the audience is likely to have as much fun watching him as he appears to be having. But as entertaining as Plummer is, the subject remains Scrooge’s creator, who appears to have had more in common with the literary miser than expected.
Set in 1843, by which time Dickens (played by “Downton Abbey” heartthrob Dan Stevens) has followed his hugely successful Oliver Twist with a couple of disappointments. In this film, written by Susan Coyne based on the nonfiction book by Les Standiford, he’s inspired by the ghost stories his Irish maid tells his delighted children to write a Christmas ghost story. Christmas needs help as much as Dickens does in this story, which gives us the impression that Brits considered nothing more than an excuse to take a day off from work.
Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) depicts Dickens’ creative process as being virtually a series of psychologically revelatory hallucinations, in which his characters, particularly Scrooge, crowd into his study. Scrooge in particular is both mocking id and muse, and the audience will recognize sooner than Dickens himself that the character represents the author’s own personal demons. In particular, Dickens is tormented by his dysfunctional relationship with his father (Jonathan Pryce) and a past that includes hard child labor that no doubt informed Oliver Twist.
As in Shakespeare in Love, the audience is invited to chuckle at the people, snatches of conversation that will find their way into classic works of literature. It’s an effective device. It makes the audience feel smart even if the writing process isn’t quite composed so neatly of “Eureka!” moments. The audience might be forgiven for wondering, with so much inspiration jockeying for position in author’s world, how he could suffer from writer’s block even for a second. And certainly with a story as well-known as A Christmas Carol, the viewer is likely to have a head-scratch or two over how the ending could have eluded Dickens for so long.
Still, The Man Who Invented Christmas entertains, and is likely to become something of a holiday perennial. The schmaltz, which is probably inevitable, is leavened with enough humor to keep it from becoming the sickeningly cloying exercise it could have degenerated into easily enough. The performances shine across the board, and Stevens, as Dickens, does not shy away from the author’s less laudable character traits – he can be self-centered, obsessive, moody and positively grumpy when he’s working. But it’s Plummer who tends to dominate the screen. He brilliantly underplays, with a venomous streak of sarcasm. The production values leap off the screen – the cinematography by Ben Smithard (who also shot Goodbye Christopher Robin) is gorgeous, and the production design is lush.
The conceit that writing A Christmas Carol redeemed the author to the same degree that the visits by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come redeemed Scrooge himself may be a bit of a stretch, but it makes for a singularly entertaining story in its own right. Handsomely produced, well-acted and crisply paced, The Man Who Invented Christmas avoids the pitfalls that could easily have derailed it, and will put audiences in a holiday mood. You’d pretty much have to Scrooge not to buy into its buoyant message.