I’m still shaking off the chills from the cold and cynical “Bad Moms Christmas” and the even colder and more cynical “Daddy’s Home 2,” a lousy pair of holiday-themed “family comedies” utterly devoid of good cheer or anything resembling actual Christmas spirit, but this unabashedly sentimental story of how Charles Dickens came to write “A Christmas Carol” is a lovely antidote to those crassly commercial lumps of coal.
Not that “The Man Who Invented Christmas” has any pretense of being historical fiction. It’s filled with so many theatrical flourishes and fantastical touches, one can envision this material as a work for the stage, or even an animated film.
Why, it’s almost as if this depiction of Dickens’ personal journey as he struggles to complete his Christmas-themed novella were similar to the story of one Ebenezer Scrooge!
And what a nifty touch to turn the story of the man who created “A Christmas Carol” into, well, pretty much another version of “A Christmas Carol.”
The dashing Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) plays Dickens, and while that might seem a stretch, given the familiar images of Dickens as a balding, dour-faced man with a crazy beard, keep in mind the author was just 32 in 1843, when he was trying to end a three-book slump and proposed to his publishers a Christmas-themed novella.
“Christmas!” they harrumph. “But that’s just a minor holiday. Nobody cares about Christmas.”
Nevertheless. Dickens presses on with the project, which he promises to complete in just six weeks.
Even though he’s battling a severe case of writer’s block.
It’s only when Charles opens his eyes to the world around him that he finds the inspiration for his story and his main characters. A bitter old man (Christopher Plummer) who has just buried his business partner brushes past Dickens and mutters, “Humbug!” An elderly waiter named Marley has Dickens scribbling in his ever-present notebook. Charles’ sickly nephew becomes the muse for Tiny Tim.
As Dickens creates these characters, they come to life in his study – offering notes, waiting for him to get on with the next chapters in their lives – and in the case of Scrooge, mocking him and challenging him and laughing at his core idea that people can change for the better. (Plummer gets to play Scrooge without playing Scrooge in the traditional sense. As you’d expect, he’s sensational.)
Flashbacks to Dickens’ traumatizing youth bring to mind works such as “Oliver Twist.” (Clever nods to works Dickens had yet to create, such as “David Copperfield,” also pop up.) “The Man Who Invented Christmas” travels some dark alleys, but then again, so does the story of Scrooge himself, of course.
The wonderful supporting cast includes Jonathan Pryce as Charles’ charming but wildly irresponsible father; Morfydd Clark as his loyal wife, Kate; Anna Murphy as a young Irish servant who tells scary bedtime stories to Charles’ children and becomes a muse of sorts to Charles; and Justin Edwards as Charles’ best friend and agent, John Forster, whose unfailing goodness reminds Charles of the best of humankind.
Watching “The Man Who Invented Christmas” will leave you wanting to read (or reread) Dickens, and to watch (or most likely rewatch) one of the many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”
And you’ll go with the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim, because you know that’s the best Scrooge of them all, right?