"THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS" — 3 stars — Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan; PG (thematic elements and some mild language); in general release
Earlier this month, "Goodbye Christopher Robin" gave us the story behind A.A. Milne's beloved Winnie the Pooh books. Now, as we pass through Thanksgiving and prepare for the Christmas season, Bharat Nalluri's "The Man Who Invented Christmas" goes behind the scenes of Charles Dickens' celebrated holiday favorite "A Christmas Carol."
Based on the book by Les Standiford, the film opens as Dickens (Dan Stevens) is on tour promoting "Oliver Twist," his latest success. Money is rolling in and life is good, but after a trio of letdowns, the author is feeling pressure to deliver another big hit as 1843 heads toward the holiday season.
It's annoying enough to have to go to the local club and take ribbing from the insufferable critic Chapman (Ian McNeice), but Dickens also starts running into money problems, and the effect leaves him in a bout with writer's block. It also doesn't help that his father, John (Jonathan Pryce), is back in town. The elder Dickens is a bit of an irreputable figure and has been selling off memorabilia with his son's signature behind his back.
Inspiration finally arrives through a handful of disparate encounters that should feel awfully familiar to fans of Dickens' celebrated Christmas tale. A wealthy socialite suggests that the poor should be sent to workhouses or that the surplus population should just be reduced, and Dickens' solicitor (Donald Sumpter) is only too happy to loan him additional money — with generous interest. His travels culminate with a nighttime stroll past a cold cemetery, where Dickens sees a brooding character in a top hat attending the funeral of his lonely business partner. As the figure grumbles his way past Dickens with an audible "humbug," the author starts to realize his next idea, but when his publisher scoffs at the project, Dickens decides to self-publish.
With the pieces in place, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" puts Dickens in the pressure cooker as he struggles to meet the six-week deadline necessary for a Christmas publication. He has to recruit and instruct an illustrator (Simon Callow) even though he still hasn't written the story, and as he works his way through his manuscript, he finds himself haunted by the characters he's writing (including a very effective Ebenezer Scrooge played by Christopher Plummer).
Nalluri's film gradually becomes a fun crossover between reality and the fiction inside Dickens' mind, playing out the familiar elements of the story while giving the audience connections to their different inspirations. At the same time he wrestles with the book — specifically with the fate of Tiny Tim — Dickens wrestles with his relationship with his father and slowly comes to understand that his new novel is helping him work through the shame of his impoverished youth.
"The Man Who Invented Christmas" is a great family-friendly movie for the holiday season and should be enjoyable for anyone familiar with Dickens' holiday classic. Plummer is so good as Scrooge that you practically leave wishing someone would cast him for yet another big-screen incarnation of the original story.
Most important, Nalluri manages to capture the spirit of the original book and the holiday it celebrates. It may seem a little odd that a movie called "The Man Who Invented Christmas" doesn't say too much about the origins of the Christmas holiday itself, but, consciously or not, Nalluri's film is an effective vehicle for the spirit of that story as well.
"The Man Who Invented Christmas" is rated PG for thematic elements and some mild language; running time: 104 minutes.