A delightful mess of a movie, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” turns Charles Dickens into a strikingly handsome charmer with an innate ability to spin empty sheaves of paper into gold. Nonetheless, given the cost of keeping his family in full Victorian elegance, he has money problems. And his own father problems. And occasional bouts of writer’s block. And a great deal of deadline pressure as Yuletide nears and he hasn’t a clue how to celebrate the holiday with a new publication.
Maybe a ghost story?
Spoiler alert, he pulls it off. And so do the filmmakers of this sweeter-than-fruitcake retelling of Dickens’ classic novel.
We’ve seen it all before, from the nasty old miser, to the adorable little fellow with the crutch, and the skeletal specter. But flip my Fezziwig if they don’t make the quintessential yarn original and appealing. Full disclosure alert, I can’t watch any adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” be it animated, live on stage or acted by Muppets, without weeping buckets, so your experience may vary. Now let me use my handkerchief to dab my eyes and look at my screening notes.
Dickens (in a gloriously chaotic performance by Dan Stevens, the cursed prince of Disney’s live action “Beauty and the Beast”) was in a pickle in late 1843. His hugely successful American tours inspired him to write about his experiences in the United States, which produced a book less than entirely complimentary, and therefore all but impossible to sell.
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He is surrounded by a household of kin requiring expensive upkeep. He’s beset by publishers hoping to recoup their loans to him after “Barnaby Rudge,” his fifth novel, flopped (one of the nice factual touches delivered here). He’s even openly satirized at his gentlemen’s club by William Makepeace Thackeray, who recites all the latest bad news of Dickens’ career in cloying pseudo-sympathy.
Remedies don’t fall easily into place as he impulsively decides to self-publish something or other about the upcoming holiday. But don’t despair. As the opening scene of fanfare and falling confetti on a highly excited American stage suggests, this is a fun film where things will be presented like a hopped-up pantomime performance.
As Dickens undergoes frustration, fate introduces valuable ways and means. During his walks around London he picks up character names and overhears sidewalk chat that can be woven into dialogue. A snappish, doddering rascal sets up the genesis of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, as nasty an old sinner as you’ll ever see). As Dickens taught us to expect, however, as dire as things may look, they tend to work out in the end.
Which is how I felt about this film. It takes a very different look at the life experiences of a beloved English author from the recent “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which told the troubled story of A.A. Milne with a touch of genuine regret. Here, we’re in full Victorian gala mode.
There is a flashback reference to Dickens’ painful childhood, and several edgy conversations with his burdensome, cash-strapped father (Jonathan Pryce, in first-rate form). But they’re swept under the rug by delicious scenes like Dickens’ negotiations with his forthcoming book’s pompous illustrator over how to turn his misty ideas into art. As the delightfully named Leech, Simon Callow is a dirty gem, wonderfully testy and irritated in dealing with this uppity popinjay. The irony of each of them fuming about their meager incomes is a delight.
Most important, the film doesn’t ignore the spirits of sympathy, compassion and benevolence that made “A Christmas Carol” one of the best-loved, and bestselling, tales in English literature. It repeats the essential message that no matter how arrogant, obstinate and insensitive someone may seem, there is possibly inside them a generous, warmhearted and caring human being.
Contrary to the title, Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, but his story helped define its true meaning, as do endless retellings, even if most are not quite as good as this.
Rating: PG for thematic elements and mild language.