Whenever one has the good fortune to speak with an author, a frequent curiosity is how they refer to their characters. Often these are not creations pulled out of thin air, but flesh and blood people, the kind who debate, badger, and can ultimately influence the writer to see a story from their perspective. It’s a knotty aspect of trying to build a world, and it lays the foundations for the best part of The Man Who Invented Christmas.
As a sweet-natured and rather innocuous holiday affair, The Man Who Invented Christmas offers a very romanticized and gentle dramatization of how Charles Dickens happened upon a Christmas Eve ghost story in 1843—as well as how it reinvented that Christian holiday for every Dec. 25 thereafter. Yet the movie finds its real Yuletide magic when it steps away from the confines of biographical origins and instead focuses on a man driven mad by his demons. Particularly when one is standing in his study and looking an awful lot like Christopher Plummer while calling himself Ebenezer Scrooge.
Told in the remarkable six-week window that Dickens—coming off three consecutive literary flops in a row—dreamed up, wrote, and published A Christmas Carol, the movie embraces the holiday season just in time for our own Thanksgiving. Played by a dashing and somewhat frazzled Dan Stevens, Dickens is all chaotic hair and furrowing brow as he reaches, with increasing desperation and defiance, for a hit before New Year.
He finds inspiration in every corner of London. His friend and semi-literary agent John Foster (Justin Edwards) fights skeptical editors and publishers on his behalf, who scoff at the idea of a book written about a “minor holiday” like Christmas. Foster also comes to resemble the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ dreams. Meanwhile, his innocent and imaginative new maid Tara (Anna Murphy) sings children fairy tales in an Irish lilt, and also looks uncannily how Dickens envisions the Ghost of Christmas Past. And there’s just a whole lot of greedy and curmudgeon sourpusses in London who amply contribute (apparently verbatim) to Scrooge’s dialogue.
However, who most inspires that impossibly, perfectly named Mr. Scrooge? Well, the good Ebenezer doesn’t physically resemble anyone in Dickens’ life—he doesn’t even fully appear before the author until Dickens happens upon that quintessential Dickensian moniker in a brain storming session—but who Plummer most resembles is perhaps the writer himself.
Dickens is haunted by the living ghost of his own father (Jonathan Pryce), who (while still technically alive) frequently torments his son with his mere appearance. The father shamelessly invites himself into his successful son’s home for Christmas after previously sending Charles as a boy to a workhouse. Spirited away to a debtor’s prison on Christmas Eve, John Dickens’ failures have grown into young Charles’ shame, all of which threatens to turn the literary giant into a cold-hearted bastard. Kind of like Scrooge.
But while that’s all well and good, the real show is seeing Plummer sneer over Charles’ shoulder about the economic practicalities of his cruelty toward the Cratchit family, and why Tiny Tim just doesn’t deserve healthcare.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a visually sumptuous confection laced in the most self-aware of austere literary ribbons. Playing its beats like a musical biopic for the more literary of young families, the film counts on each viewer’s intimate familiarity with Dickens’ tale of Christmas spirits, dead as doornail business partners, and the rest of the most famous lines in the 1843 novella (or at least its many onscreen adaptations).
Hence many lines are presented with all the subtlety of Johnny Cash declaring he’ll walk that line in natural conversation. There are moments of blandly cynical (and modern-sounding) conservatives whining, “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?” While cute and comfortingly nostalgic, this is also stifling at times too.
Nevertheless, the movie remains an ultimately cozying trip down memory lane, because it is so otherwise well put together. Director Bharat Nalluri assembles a visually luminous picture of Dickensian London that never feels kitsch. With stunning production design by Paki Smith and lavish costumes from Leonie Prendergast, the December that is apparently responsible for all others in this film is far more vibrant than plenty of the other stiffer Christmas Carol movies that have previously haunted us.
It also has a wholly amiable cast, led by a delightfully spastic Stevens. Having played all manner of beastly malcontents in the last year or so, he takes on the most monstrous of creatures here: a man of words suffering from a blockage of them. His glowering scour complements Plummer’s frown, which threatens to sink into the floor if he lays it on any thicker. Even if he did though, it still wouldn’t be enough given how much fun the old veteran is having.
The rest of the cast is plenty warm—even those in the thankless roles like Mortfydd Clark as Charles’ long-suffering wife, Kate—and like the movie itself, they are inviting audiences to embrace the magic of so many Christmases Past. The more you can recall your own various encounters with Scrooge, the more you will enjoy being in the presence of his birth.
It might not fully explore why Dickens is credited for “inventing” our modern understanding of Christmas, but the movie should be greeted happily by all merrymakers, especially those in families who are looking for some smarter entertainment not drenched in computerized ones and zeroes. That might be its greatest gift of all.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is playing in theaters now.