Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas is set in the fall and winter of 1843, when Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was writing A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from an unfeeling miser to a kindly benefactor. When the film opens, the Victorian Era author’s wildly successful The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) and The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39) are behind him. He has had two failures since then and no inspiration for another serial. (While Dickens’ work now appears as novels, they were originally published in chapters as printed booklets.) His wife, Kate, is pregnant with their sixth child, and the couple are redecorating their home.
In the movie, Dickens’ characters in A Christmas Carol begin to appear as he envisions them. They lay about his writing studio mocking him, and when he tries to escape, they follow him outdoors. At the center of this delightful bit of holiday fluff is Dan Stevens of Downtown Abbey as Dickens, in a performance that plays to the rafters. Christopher Plummer as Scrooge is in a different movie entirely, and slowly sends the author on his dark journey of self-realization. In the end, Plummer steals the movie, especially in such hilarious moments when he sidles up to Dickens with his own ideas about how Scrooge should be conceived. Screenwriter Susan Coyne deserves the credit for the clever subtext in the film of writing as a process in which the writer confronts his demons.
Several non-fiction books are devoted to the genesis of A Christmas Carol, as is the recently published novel by Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (2017), but this movie’s story is inspired by Les Standiford’s The Man Who Invented Christmas (2008). It suggests that Dickens overheard a nanny, Tara (Anna Murphy), recounting to his children an Irish folktale about Christmas Eve. In the film, she tells the author that on the eve, the barriers between life and death are broken, and ghosts roam the Earth. Since Scrooge’s reckoning begins on that evening at the stroke of midnight, when he is visited by his late business partner Christopher Marley, the implication is that the folktale was the springboard for A Christmas Carol. In a charming subplot, Tara, who reads the popular penny serials, becomes Dickens’ measure of whether his story will sell.
The Man Who Invented Christmas opens in the Dickens home amid the disarray of ongoing construction, the author worried about how he will pay for it all. He finds no relief at his publisher’s office, and soon escapes to a restaurant with his friend and literary agent (and in real life, his biographer) John Foster (Justin Edwards). There Dickens meets the boastful William Thackeray (1811-1863), best-known for his novel Vanity Fair, who was his rival in literary circles; in the 1840s, Thackeray was enjoying great success. Shortly afterward, Dickens’ estranged parents, John (John Pryce) and Mary Dickens (Ger Ryan), arrive for an unexpected visit, and the author feels a prickle of annoyance. In real life, Dickens rented a house for them, although as the film recounts, it was far from his own London abode.
In flashback, Dickens then recalls the sting of his father’s imprisonment and his subsequent need to work, at age 12, in order to support the family. While most biographers agree that it was the well-educated Mary who taught Dickens to read, and who sparked his interest in literature, some say it was she who also attempted to keep him at menial work after his father’s release. In the movie, Mary and the author’s wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), are little more than decorative. After Dickens gains his inspiration from Tara, he grapples with the naming of his characters, his first step toward constructing the narrative. That humorous sequence, in which Dickens stomps around his writing studio, includes the requisite and annoying interruptions of writing at home.
In these sequences, Dickens uses everything to feed his book — the faces of passersby become those of his characters, as is the case with Scrooge, and snatches of conversation on the street find their way into his story. In the clever staging of his creative process, with skillful direction by Nalluri, Dickens converses with his characters, fleshing out their personalities, all the while coming to terms with the part of himself that is Scrooge. It is this aspect of his being that is unforgiving and that withholds affection from his parents for their past mistakes. Dickens, who appears a young man in the film, was actually middle-aged in 1843 (he died at 58), a time of reckoning; in the movie, he is compelled to change or risk the chains, the burden that Marley wears for eternity.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a writer’s tale and, not unlike A Christmas Carol, is aimed at young adult and adult audiences who will grasp the humor and the portent of the story. Familiarity with the Dickens classic is taken for granted. While the movie sometimes veers in different directions, for instance, the friendship of Dickens and Foster suggesting a buddy movie, and the relationship between the writer and his parents, the darker undertones of a “home for the holidays” film, the story of Dickens as suffering from writer’s block is rather new. Colorful period sets (by Paki Smith), a deft picture edit (Jamie Pearson, Stephen O’Connell) and excellent sound mix (Lou Solakofski, Joe Morrow), as well as a devilish Scrooge, the fulcrum upon which the entire script turns, results in a brisk and entertaining 90 minutes.