In The Man Who Invented Christmas, the title character is Charles Dickens, whose story A Christmas Carol, we are told, popularized the holiday in England.
Dickens published the story (actually titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-story of Christmas) in 1843. The movie opens on a cash-strapped and creatively blocked Dickens (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens) as he concocts and finishes his story on a tight deadline. Dickens at the time has had a run of unpopular books and poor sales. His family is expanding, his money-pit house is bleeding him dry, and his freeloading father (Game of Thrones‘ Jonathan Pryce) has just come to visit to wheedle more money from his son. A beleaguered Dickens retreats each evening to his study to sweat out the story.
There are countless intrusions, but each turns into an idea that Dickens repurposes for his story. His Irish maid tells him about a folk tradition of perturbed spirits crossing into the realm of the living on Christmas Eve. He borrows money from a greedy lawyer who becomes Jacob Marley, a stuffy aristocrat mouths the words that eventually go into the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge. As the writer imagines the characters, they appear before him, most notably Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), who takes the lead in mocking Dickens for his stymied creativity.
All of this is framed as a race against time, complicated by significant obstacles — the indebted Dickens has borrowed heavily and spent lavishly to self-finance the expensive project. Director Bharat Nalluri makes us feel the ticking clock of the Christmas deadline, but emotional beats are less assured. The movie is slow to zero in on the troubled relationship between Dickens and his irresponsible father, who, the movie informs us, went to debtors prison when Dickens was young, leaving Charles to the cruelties of a workhouse. It’s not until Charles reckons with these memories and learns to resolve his feelings for his father that he can finish the book.
The movie is antic, bouncing frantically from one story element to another, and poor Stevens, looking electrocuted and sleep-deprived, plays Dickens like the Man Who Invented Meth. Still, this desperately eager-to-please movie eventually finds its eagerness rewarded, and even cynics will enjoy seeing Dickens (spoiler alert) meet his deadline, get his book published, and host a big Christmas dinner.
Heavy borrowing, massive spending, and large amounts of food.
Maybe he did invent Christmas.
The Man Who Invented Christmas
- Directed by Bharat Nalluri. With Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes and Simon Callow. Distributed by Bleeker Street.
- Parents guide: PG
- Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
- Playing at: Area theaters