For fans of “Christmas Carol,” “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a must.
One could scarcely ask for a fonder tribute to the holiday favorite than this wonderfully engaging tale of how Charles Dickens struggled to write the novel way back in 1843.
Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” “Beauty and the Beast”) plays the author, and Christopher Plummer plays Ebenezer Scrooge -- with excellent support from Justin Edwards as Dickens’ friend Forster; Jonathan Pryce as the author’s impecunious father, John; and the winsome Valeria Bandino as a young housekeeper named Tart.
While the latter was fabricated for this story, screenwriter Susan Coyne handles other details of Dickens’ life with reverence and wisdom. In fact, her script is a triumph.
A long-time “Christmas Carol” junkie, I was looking forward to this movie, but also fearing it might be thin and sappy. On the contrary: Coyne sets several worthy goals, and then meets them all with a flourish.
She’s concerned principally with Dickens’ desperate push to complete the novel (sales of his latest were down, and he did not begin “Carol” till October, finishing in a mere six weeks). At the same time, Coyne weaves in many tasty chestnuts from the Christmas book itself: the door-knocker, Marley’s safes and chains, workhouses, fog, Christmas pudding -- even a few items from later Dickens books.
She also deals admirably with Dickens’ celebrity status, his somewhat troubled marriage and his horrific work in a factory at age 12 -- plus the author’s relationship with his parents and his children. In the long run, Coyne boldly offers a motive for Scrooge’s stinginess -- and for what Dickens did with his own life as well: She sees the writer torn between his spendthrift father and the miserly Scrooge. In “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” Dickens must not only finish his rushed manuscript; he must also find a way between these extremes. Somewhat brilliantly, Coyne includes enough scenes from “Carol” itself so that we’re always tracking with that story too -- and she makes Scrooge’s change of heart coincide with that of Dickens (while also happily resolving other conflicts in the plot).
Thanks to Coyne and Stevens, the movie never makes a saint out of Dickens, who was a great man but not always a good one; nor does it demonize the irresponsible John Dickens -- or even Scrooge himself. Plummer is downright magnificent; much as we detest his stinginess, we can tell from the start that there’s something deeper and kinder in the man.
Taken from a 2011 book on Dickens, the movie’s title may seem overstated; but if you’ve ever helped out the less fortunate during the holidays, you can thank Charles Dickens and his “ghostly little book.”
And now we must thank Coyne & co. too -- for reminding us why this message remains so moving, and so imporant, at this time of year.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas,”
directed by Bharat Nalluri
Run time: 104 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild language