Having seen pretty much all of the key cinematic depictions of the immortal Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol” over the years, I can honestly say that I could go the rest of my life without seeing another permutation of the tale. That feeling was again reinforced after watching “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a saccharine stab at a new holiday perennial that tries to fuse the classic Yuletide yarn with a “Shakespeare In Love”-style literary origin story and manages to let both of them down, not to mention a performance by Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge that deserves a much better showcase than the one provided here.
The year is 1843 and Dickens (Dan Stevens) is in a commercial slump—his previous three novels have found little favor with the buying public—and he is in need of money in order to help support himself, his loyal wife Catherine (Morfydd Clark), their four children (with a fifth on the way) and an expensive home renovation. While casting about for ideas for a new book, he takes inspiration from his new maid (Anna Murphy), whose literary tastes are of a somewhat lurid bent (she is a big “Varney the Vampire” fan), and who mentions to him a folk tale about mysterious spirits being revived at Christmastime. This sparks something in Dickens and he decides that he will write and self-publish his own holiday-themed ghost story in time for Christmas as a way of replenishing his coffers. There is one little hitch to this endeavor—Christmas is about six weeks away and to miss that immovable deadline would be disastrous.
This might seem to be an impossible task to pull off, especially since he will be attempting to work in a house filled with children, workmen and the unexpected presence of his cheerful but constantly broke father (Jonathan Pryce). Luckily for Dickens, everywhere he goes in London offers him some nugget that he channels into his work, ranging from a lame nephew to an ancient waiter at his club with the delightful name of Marley. The real burst of inspiration comes when Dickens happens upon the evening burial of a man attended only by his aging and apparently heartless business partner (Plummer), who immediately becomes the model for Scrooge himself, especially his constant uttering of “Humbug.” While trying to work the story out from the confines of his study, Dickens finds himself interacting with the characters he has created as he tries to work out what happens to them. The story soon becomes a race against time as Dickens tries to resolve the ending of the book (he seems very keen on Tiny Tim dying) and get the manuscript to the publisher in time before it is too late while at the same time confronting the still-lingering after-effects of his father’s lifetime of financial irresponsibility in the hopes of reconciling with him before it too is too late.
Based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Les Standiford, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” has been adapted by screenwriter Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri into the kind of hard-sell holiday whimsy that may appeal to those who wish that more places would start playing Christmas carols before Halloween while at the same time driving others up the wall. The notion of watching Dickens create his most everlasting work sounds intriguing in theory but the execution here is more off-putting than delightful. Not particularly keen on nuance or subtlety, this is a film in which everything, especially Stevens’ decidedly manic take on Dickens, is pitched as broadly as possible. An even bigger problem with the film is the way in which it handles its presentation of the creative process. Granted, watching someone sitting at a table and scratching away with a pen while working out story problems does not exactly make for great cinema, but the solution to that obstacle—having him constantly pilfering characters, ideas and even chunks of dialogue from his forays into the real world—feels like a cheat and does an enormous disservice to one of literature’s great imaginations. “Shakespeare in Love” was not exactly a realistic depiction of the writing process either but it feels like cinema verite when compared to what is depicted here.
The one aspect of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” that does work well is the striking turn by Christopher Plummer as the film’s ersatz Scrooge. Of course, Plummer is one of those actors who seems virtually incapable of turning in a bad performance, but his work here is really strong. Scrooge is, of course, a role that seems tailor-made for hamming it up, but Plummer instead takes a quieter and more delicate approach that stands in marked contrast to the rest of the film, and is all the more effective as a result. He is acerbically funny in his interactions with his creator but also manages to inject a few moments of genuine pathos into the proceedings as well, a feat all the more considerable since he is playing an overtly fictional character. You know, I would like to partially walk back what I said earlier and state that if someone were inspired by this film to cast Plummer in a straightforward version of “A Christmas Carol,” I would actually be interested in seeing such a thing. Until then, we will have to make do with his appearance here, which stands out like a delightful sugar plum in the middle of an otherwise stale cake.