Movie Beat: Dan Stevens charming in “The Man Who Invented Christmas”
by Jenniffer Wardell
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild language
Screenplay by Susan Coyne, based on the book by Les Standiford
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Ger Ryan and more
Grade: Two and a half stars
It takes a lot to make a really great story.
Surprisingly charming proof of that can be found in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a light, creative and somewhat emotional look at how one of the greatest Christmas stories ever written came to be. Weaving together actual history and a great deal of insight into the creative process, the movie shows how authors’ lives feed their imagination and help transform everything from idle comments to their inner demons and transform them into art.
Based on the biography of the same name, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” follows Charles Dickens through the weeks while he was writing “A Christmas Carol.” It turns out his career was far more at risk than modern audiences often realize, and he was wrestling with both family issues and some darker moments from his own past. Add a difficult deadline, a lack of money, and characters who talk back and refuse to do what they’re told, and Dickens ends up with a fight on his hands.
Though it’s clearly supposed to be a Christmas movie, the real heart of the story is highlighting the creative process that it took to bring the story to life. We see Dickens absorb key names and lines from people on the street, combine his anger with a larger purpose and fill its corners with the ghosts he hears about in a nanny’s story to his children. His own history ends up getting sucked into the story, which is a far more common part of the process than we novelists like to admit, and he argues with characters who stand in front of him like ghosts.
Though there’s clearly a healthy amount of creative license involved in the representation of the entire process, there’s a lot of it that’s utterly genuine. It’s a peek inside a writer’s mind, in the moments when it’s both at its best and least able to function in polite society. There’s a certain magic to it, just as whimsical as the idea of ghosts who come on Christmas Eve to teach a man moral lessons.
Still, it does offer many of the same emotional satisfactions of a Christmas movie. Dickens’ various relationships are a common thread throughout the whole movie, particularly the complicated tangle of feelings he has for his father, and they’re given the holiday movie treatment. Those familiar with the history will notice several elements that have been smoothed over, given a more positive spin, or tweaked entirely in honor of the season.
Dan Stevens is enjoyable as Dickens, showing off both the character’s good heart and more inscruitable, fey-like qualities. He’s a compassionate and angry man in equal measure, and part of the reason no one seems able to understand him is because he deliberately keeps parts of himself locked away. Christopher Plummer is fantastic as the Scrooge wandering around in Dickens’ imagination, turning his cutting tongue and crabby heart on his author rather than the characters around him.
Though “A Christmas Carol” had never been my favorite holiday story, seeing it created has given me a new respect for it. Yes, there’s a healthy dose of fiction, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a spark of truth giving it life.
(Photo ©Bleecker Street)