By Karen Gordon
Here’s an early gift. The Man Who Invented Christmas is a little jewel, an entertaining, layered, sweet-hearted movie about how British author Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in a staggeringly short six weeks.
Full disclosure: A Christmas Carol (1951), starring Alastair Sim, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst (don’t even talk to me about any others) is a loved and influential movie for me. I grew up watching it - first on a black and white TV, then in black and white on my colour TV - and I still cry, usually at the same parts.
The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Les Standiford. As the movie tells it, by 1943, the thirtyish Charles Dickens, was wondering whether he was watching his career crumble in front of him. He had been an international literary sensation, a kind of Victorian era rock star, a man of wealth and fame.
And then three books in a row flopped, leaving Dickens, a young father with a growing family, living well in London and sinking into debt.
In October, DIckens and close friend and de facto business manager John Forster (Justin Edwards) propose to his publishers that DIckens write a Christmas novella. The publishers are flabbergasted. Christmas in this era is “a minor holiday,” and with such a short time, and with Dickens not yet clear on his story, it seems a fool’s investment.
Undeterred and desperate, DIckens decides he’ll self-publish and retires to his writing room to find his story.
But what story will he tell? The movie posits Dickens using encounters and inspiration from his own life. A chance encounter in a graveyard with a miserable old man and the comments of a few gravediggers about a miser’s stony heart, inspires the central character of Scrooge.
The ancient waiter at his club named Marley inspires Scrooge’s departed former business partner.
He also draws inspiration from the darkest corners of his life, including a childhood trauma that he apparently only spoke of on his death bed, to Forster (who, it turns out, inspires the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present)
Friends, casual meetings or observations of people in the street, adversaries (chief among them, snide fellow writer and book critic William Thackeray, played by Miles Jupp) as well as those in his own household, needle, inspire and impair Dickens as he gets increasingly frantic trying to figure out his story.
And in the midst of this,Dickens' parents show up, which means contending with his loose cannon father (Jonathan Pryce) with whom Charles has a fraught relationship.
The Man Who Invented Christmas turns the story of what is essentially Dickens jamming to make his deadline into a slyly comic mystery thriller about a man pushing through writer’s block and rediscovering himself.
The adaptation by Toronto actor, writer and producer Susan Coyne (Slings and Arrows), uses the historical facts as a framework for a clever, fantastical story that works on multiple levels. It dives into Dickens’ darkest fears and yet stays lively, joyful and family-friendly.
British director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day) gives the movie a robust pace, reflecting Dickens manic panic as he speeds towards that final deadline with that final chapter. There are moments of great conflict and sadness. But Nalluri manages those moments without descending into melodrama which would have killed the film. Instead the screen radiates a lovely joy.
Dan Stevens has, in a very short period of time, proved himself to be capable of just about anything - from his break out role in Downton Abbey to a psychopathic killer (The Guest), a singing bewitched Beast/Prince (Beauty and the Beast) and a screwed up superhero (the TV series Legion). And he is a perfect match for Plummer, incredibly now in his late 80s, who cannot, it seems, put a foot wrong.
The two actors’ characters spar with and taunt each other, but neither grandstands or aims to overshadow. Even the smallest roles are cast beautifully – including some acknowledged Dickens experts like Miriam Margolyes (Mrs. Fisk) and Simon Callow (Leech), who took their parts out of love for the material.
As for my beloved 1951 A Christmas Carol, Nalluri mirrors that movie in the way he’s cast some of the smaller roles. And as this movie nears the end, you start to see how he’s set The Man Who Invented Christmas up to subtly match the older film in pacing and in themes.
Charles Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, he wrote a book that changed the culture around Christmas. And perhaps that’s why the story of the redemption of Scrooge is a classic tale, beloved by people who do or don’t celebrate Christmas.
Likewise, The Man Who Invented Christmas could become a quintessential movie for anyone of any faith or belief system.
With its humour, performances, universal themes, and just basic good heartedness, this is a movie for anyone who wants to end the year in a theatre feeling happier and more hopeful.
The Man Who Invented Christmas. Directed by Bharat Nalluri. Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Pryce. Opens wide Friday, November 24.