Films about the inspiration behind great works of art always seem to be a good idea in theory, but rarely ever in actuality. We romanticise the creative process, but the fact of the matter is, that process often isn’t actually that interesting - usually a lot of procrastination, sitting around and bursts of action. In many cases, fiction has to be mixed in to fill the gaps, but this brings up the continued debate about inaccuracies in films that retread historical events. This is certainly the case with Bharat Nalluri’s ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’, which is both not that interesting a story, and filled with flights of fantasy to hide this fact.
Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, TV's 'Legion', 'Beauty and the Beast', 'Downton Abbey') is suffering a slump when he conceives of the idea for ‘A Christmas Carol’, a fable for the holiday season. The problem is, no one cares about Christmas in Victorian England, so he decides to publish the novel himself. But with building debts and an impossibly short deadline, can he find the story in time, especially with his eccentric father John (Jonathan Pryce, 'Pirates Of The Carribean' franchise, TV's 'Taboo') causing trouble, and the characters from the story itself, led be Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', 'The Sound Of Music') following him around and bullying him?
Based on the book by Les Standiford, ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ attempts to fill out the paragraph history behind the writing of the fable with biographical detail about Dickens, finding parallels between his life and the story he is writing. From the beginning, this feels like a lazy piece of storytelling, particularly when the possible biographical details hidden in the story had already been a part of Dickens’ writing for years. The fantastical element of having the characters come to life and follow Dickens around is a lovely touch, but feels like it would suit much better in a theatrical context rather than a cinematic one. It’s never clear what we’re supposed to take away from what we’re watching, or even what we’re supposed to feel about Dickens, other than that he’s a genius (which basically every character in the film says at some point to his face). In many ways, this feels like a watered-down, far less charming version of ‘Shakespeare In Love’, with its Dickens in-jokes and little coincidences to make you chuckle (oh, that character’s name is David Copperfield? How charming!), but without the sharp wit and engaging story. It’s trying to be imaginative, but the imagination just comes across a trite and distracting, and nothing in the serviceable direction from Nalluri helps that. It’s as if the film is trying to be its own Christmas classic, to the point of actually being kind of obnoxious, especially with the insistently cheery score from Mychael Danna, which I really wanted to ask to sit down and have a quiet moment instead of trying so hard.
It’s also hard to know how much of what we’re being told is fact. Yes, Dickens did self-publish the book, and this was following a series of flops, but did he do it that quickly? Did it cause him that much torment? At the very least, everything I’ve read about the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ suggests it was written to cash in on the re-emerging of Christmas as a tradition, and while the story did influence our understanding of the holiday, it didn’t bloody well invent it. It also ends up using the kind of emotional blackmail we’re used to from biopics these days, moments of intense emotional drama to make us sympathise with Dickens and his struggle, but when you step back from them, seem not far from TV-Movie-of-the-Week dramas dressed in much prettier costumes.
It’s as if the film is trying to be its own Christmas classic, to the point of actually being kind of obnoxious...
Thanks goodness for Dan Stevens, whose natural charm overcomes how ridiculous and messy the film is. His Dickens isn’t always the easiest character to like, but Stevens is always there to bring us back to him, and he somehow knows how to navigate the uneven tone of the film. John Edwards stands out nicely as Dickens’ lawyer and friend John Forster, ultimately becoming the heart of the film, but not everyone else fares as well, with Pryce and Plummer constantly appearing confused as to what’s going on half the time. There’s nothing to say about the women in the film, because the film seems to have nothing to say about them either, their function often being as props for the narrative or someone to yell at (which Dickens does to basically every woman in the film without consequence). Also, filling the film with every respected actor who’s ever done anything Dickens-related does not win you any cred.
‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ is a conundrum of a film, unclear in its intentions and inconsistent in its execution. The tone it strikes is off-putting, the story it tells feels insincere and it doesn’t paint the most striking portrait of Charles Dickens, no matter what Dan Stevens does. For me, the one thing that best encapsulates the problem with the film is the moment Dickens is handed the first copy of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The prop convincingly recreates the cover, and then the title page, but the text itself is a font and printing style that can only have been done on a computer. The interest of this film to tell a fascinating story in literary history only goes so far, before cheaper storytelling tricks end up being employed, just making it a cheap copy. I’d avoid it and go watch ‘The Muppets Christmas Carol’ instead. It’s a far better approach to this classic Christmas story.