Film Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

The plot follows Charles Dickens at the time when he wrote A Christmas Carol and how Dickens's fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge was influenced by his real-life father, John Dickens

London calling: Dan Stevens is Charles Dickens
London calling: Dan Stevens is Charles Dickens

Both a literary heavyweight and superstar, the landmark Victorian-era novelist Charles Dickens – arguably the most iconic writer in the English language, second only perhaps to William Shakespeare – would have very well found himself at home in this day and age. A populist writer known to churn out serialised narratives at breakneck speed, he would later become known for his public readings: packed affairs delivered with oratory relish and cementing the idea that literature can be bona fide entertainment.

And as if to confirm the contemporary obsession of everything having to be a “brand”, legend would have it that it was Dickens who more or less single-handedly helped revive the then-flagging tradition of Christmas... thanks to, of course, the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, which depicts the redemptive arc of a miserly moneylender who learns to appreciate the charitable nature of the holiday after being hounded by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

Adapted from the book by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas charts the evolution of this defining little book, casting Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens as a young Charles Dickens, who is attempting to kick his career back into gear after the flop that was his previous novel, the America-eviscerating satire Martin Chuzzlewit. Aided by his affable and doggedly loyal friend and agent John Forster (Justin Edwards), Charles pitches what would later become ‘A Christmas Carol’ to his sceptical publishers... also, in part, because he needs a hit to cushion some of his mounting debts.

But as he begins to envisage the cast of characters that would occupy the book – most notably the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) – he begins to feel them take over his life, much to the chagrin of his doting wife Kate (Morfydd Clark), while his well-meaning but financially frustrating father John (Jonathan Pryce) distracts him with a visit... and reminds Charles of the hardships he was forced to suffer in his youth, after being sent away to the workhouse as a consequence of his father’s debts.

Hardships which may just shade the redemptive narrative he is attempting to bring to the world.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri, The Man Who Invented Christmas has the potential of being a metafictional marvel – with a Piriandello-esque ‘characters in search of an author’ set-up at its core – but instead settles for being an unthreatening bit of comfort viewing. And, on the whole, that’s not too much of a problem.

In fact, the cinematography and production design (taken care of by Ben Smithard and Paki Smith, respectively) do a good enough job of snuggling us into a world of cosy Victoriana – Charles’s crammed, book-lined study is particularly charming – but the screenplay by Susan Coyne never even dares to punch above its weight. This is, of course, perfectly fine – this is a movie about Christmas, released just in time for Christmas after all, where comfort and reassurance should be king – but when characters start to actually declare what’s supposed to be subtext out loud, and over and over again, the whimsical charm of the thing starts to crack just a little bit.

Not that it ever shatters. This is a production buoyed by an overwhelming sense of goodwill, not least in it’s all-star British cast, especially when it comes to its lead.

But while Stevens remains likable and energetic with his portrayal of Dickens – battling as he does a firmly-established legacy of sepia-toned, bearded portrayals – it is the veteran players that really elevate the proceedings out of fluffy pap and into something with a semblance of rugged charm. As Charles’s spendthrift but good-hearted father John, Jonathan Pryce does have to contend with some moments of base sentimentality, but he even carries these off with genuine humanity that strokes the desired effect of pity. And as the mental projection of Scrooge, Christopher Plummer has the privilege of darkening this largely saccharine story with a dose of caustic cynicism, and his mental tug-of-war with Stevens – who of course plays his erstwhile creator – is often delightful to watch.

In short, those of you looking for a more sombre take on the life and work of Charles Dickens would be advised to look elsewhere. Documentaries on his life abound – and they often come dramatised by lifetime Dickens devotee Simon Callow, who in this film takes on the role of the fussy book illustrator John Leech, and whose passion for the novelist’s biography is infectious. If a feature film is what you’re looking for, The Invisible Woman (2013), directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, would be just the astringent tonic to take should you desire to wash down this sugary treat; depicting as it does the twilight years of the writer’s life... and, more crucially, the last days of Dickens’s marriage, compromised as it was by an affair with actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Felicity Jones), and miles away from the sometimes-rocky-but-largely-solid relationship we see here.

But those willing to soften their hearts with some season-appropriate emotional massaging need look no further.

An unapologetic seasonal confection, The Man Who Invented Christmas eschews realism or any kind of dramatic subtlety to tell a fairy tale that just about matches the most maudlin excesses found in Dickens’s own work. But it is just about stage-managed to perfection to get the appropriate response from a family-wide audience around this time of year, with a game cast and enchanting production design that seal the deal. Don’t expect greatness, but there’s joy to be had if you squint hard enough.