It’s only been a few short weeks since Winnie the Pooh got the “Shakespeare in Love” treatment in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” — a film that inspired this critic to lament that “we used to tell stories; now we just tell stories about how we used to tell stories” — which means that we’re already long overdue for another saccharine period fable about the creation of another literary icon. Enter Ebenezer Scrooge, who came to Charles Dickens at a moment when both men were at a low point in their lives.
The year was 1843, the great author (a manic Dan Stevens) was 31, and his massive fame was ebbing in the wake of three consecutive flops. With the winter settling in and a certain lifestyle to maintain, Dickens was in desperate need of a Christmas miracle. There was only one problem: There hadn’t been a Christmas miracle in almost 1,843 years. You see, Victorian England didn’t make much of a to-do about December 25th, its people marking the occasion with a degree of enthusiasm that’s typically reserved for the likes of Palm Sunday. Until, that is, the era’s most beloved novelist had a vision that broke him free from his writer’s block and changed Western culture forever: What if the birth of Jesus could be used to sell people things for profit?
So begins Bharat Nalluri’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a well-intentioned but wearisome jolt of prefab holiday cheer that dramatizes the frantic six-week period between when Dickens thought of an urgent idea for a new story, and when the first 6,000 copies of “A Christmas Carol” were available in London bookshops. Before there could be a War on Christmas there was a War for Christmas, and Dickens seems to have fought it almost singlehandedly. Sure, he had the support of his trusted friend, John Foster (Justin Edwards), as well as that of his wife (Morfydd Clark, playing the woman who Dickens would later cheat on and separate from), but there’s a reason why most of this film takes place in the warm and musty interiors of the author’s study, where he talks to his characters as though they were right there in the room with him.
And on screen, they are. Working from the script that Susan Coyne has playfully adapted from Les Standiford’s non-fiction book of the same name, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” takes Dickens’ process to its literal conclusion by having him interact with Scrooge as directly as Scrooge interacts with his three ghosts. Nothing fuels the “divine frenzy” of writing quite like a cranky old Christopher Plummer materializing behind you and muttering “Bah, humbug!” into your ear.
Shot on a detailed Dublin soundstage, these scenes aren’t particularly exciting — they lack the nimble wit that helped “Shakespeare in Love” launch this tired genre — but their broadness keys into the theatricality of Dickens’ novel (there’s a good reason why “A Christmas Carol” was adapted for the stage so quickly after it was first published). Hammier than a holiday dinner, the whole film is pitched to the rafters, with Stevens and Clark delivering the kind of hyper-expressive performances that seem designed for small children or large Broadway auditoriums. Jonathan Pryce joins in on the fun, playing Dickens’ pitiful father with the same paternal desperation that Christopher Walken brought to “Catch Me if You Can.”
Plummer is the only one who seems to be on a different page, as his mischievous and semi-sweet Scrooge is too quiet for such a loud movie, and gets lost in the noise like a precious ornament buried in the thistles of a cluttered tree. Blink and you might miss the moment when the miser’s heart grows three sizes. Ditto that when Dickens realizes that he needs to be as generous with his affections as he is with his money. Coyne’s script can’t seem to decide if Dickens’ writing process should dovetail with Scrooge’s story or if it should be used as a layer of irony to distance us from it, resulting in a very busy film that’s suspended between two different ideas, bound together only by the shared belief that capitalism is a cancer.
It’s a confusing message for a movie that’s trying to sell us on the idea that “A Christmas Carol” changed the world for the better, a movie that chastises Dickens for being too wrapped up in his work but exists to celebrate the work that he only finished by ignoring everything about his family save for the inspiration they gave him.
Of course, the saving grace of any decent Christmas movie is that it can always fall back on the holiday spirit, and this one does just that. “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another” goes the old refrain, and “The Man Who Invented Christmas” certainly underlines how the love we have for one another is the most valuable gift of all. At a time when Great Men are being exposed by the day, there are worse things than a yuletide reminder that being a great man isn’t nearly as important as being a good one.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” will open in theaters on November 22nd.