Believe it or not, there was a time when Christmas wasn’t a “thing.” People didn’t start preparing for it the minute the frost fell from the pumpkins and every product on the market didn’t feature images of a cherubic jolly old gift-giving elf. There were no such things as decorated pine trees, stockings hung by the chimney with care, and let’s not even get into the whole Black Friday/Cyber Monday debate.
If we are to believe the non-fiction book and the movie based on it, Christmas didn’t start becoming what it is today until Charles Dickens (played here by Dan Stevens), in an act of professional desperation, penned the novella A Christmas Carol. Along with Queen Victoria’s influence on the celebration and a growing need among merchants for more holiday sales, we end up with the over-commercialized and often politicized day in December we all love so much.
Part biopic, part inventive retelling of the famous Scrooge story, The Man Who Invented Christmas works best when it steps outside the main narrative and let’s Christopher Plummer lose as the nasty old miser who has a sudden change of holiday heart thanks to three spectral visitors. Granted, this material is made unique by having it occur as Dickens’ own private haunting. Put another way, in order to find success again as an author, the man who made Tiny Tim and The Ghost of Christmas Past part of the yuletide mythos was hounded by these characters, his head filled with their own plot insecurities and character laments.
We begin with a writer blocked. After a series of flops, Dickens is looking to regain his celebrated stature. He’s got a family to feed and expensive imported furnishings to pay for. Fearing a fate like his father’s (Jonathan Pryce), who ended up in debtor’s prison, he comes up with the idea for Carol, and has it immediately rejected by his publisher. Mirroring the skinflint’s eventual journey from jerk to holiday joy, we watch as Dickens gets his ducks in a row, coming up with good and bad ideas which are then commented on by the characters from the book. It all becomes very meta and very meaningful, that is, when the pedestrian direction doesn’t destroy the mood.
Bharat Nalluri, who gave us the underwhelming Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, handles things in a clunky, clumsy manner. What should have an air of enigmatic mystery instead comes across like a blank Hallmark card, waiting for the crucial details and sentiment to be added in later. There’s no magic here, and it’s a Christmas movie. It should be beaming with sugarplums and other holiday inspiration. But Nalluri’s vision tends toward the cute, leaving much of the mean and miserable which guided Dickens to the side. We’re glad he avoids a complete retelling of Carol here, but as the main story meanders along, we want for the recognizable beats of temporal spirits and a last act epiphany.
The Man Who Invented Christmas can’t help but be compared to the Peter Pan origin story Finding Neverland. Both films filter the complex process of writing into a series of strange coincidences, even odder inspirations, and a bit too much saccharine pap. We get it–Dickens crafted a classic that has been adapted and spun into versions both sublime and surreal. It’s as much a part of our holiday celebrations as that Madison Avenue Santa and the ever-present pumpkin spice. But there had to be more to the man than being plagued by visions of his characters-to-be. Sadly, The Man Who Invented Christmas gives us none of this.
Still, as a sugary send-off to Scrooge and the gang, this movie is well meaning and, on occasion, very entertaining. It may not be A Christmas Carol, but it’s no Santa Paws either.