The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) Review
THE STORY BEHIND THE CLASSIC
Within the grand tapestry of famous books and novels, the name of Charles Dickens standing out as a prominent author in classic literature. A British author from the 1800s (1812-1870), Dickens found his literary success after his serial publication of “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836; eventually launching himself to become an international celebrity writer that was famous for his satire, humor, and an acute observation of character and society. Additionally, Dickens’s novels were frequently (weekly or monthly installments), which pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which was quite popular during this Victorian era of England as well as coming up with “cliffhanger endings” to keep a reader’s attention (and to purchase the next installment). Some of Dicken’s most famous has work have become classic pieces of literature (even in modern times), including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol, with many re-released publications since their inception as well as various adaptations (over the years) for both the big and small screen. Now, Bleecker Street studio and director Bharat Nalluri present the unsung tale of how Charles Dickens to one of his most beloved stories ever in the holiday film The Man Who Invented Christmas. Does this film find the roots of Dicken’s Christmas spirit or is it just a “Bah! Humbug” type of feature?
After receiving incredible literary praise and success from the novel “Oliver Twist”, author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) spends most of 1843 in a celebratory daze, feeling on top of the world with a speaking tour that takes the British writer to America. Roughly two years and three uninspiring books later, Charles’s fame and success are fleeting, leaving him agitated as his accustomed lifestyle is outpacing his income, trying to hide his financial woes from his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) and his children. In need of something truly outstanding to give to his publisher (and to reverse his fortunes), Charles fight writer’s block as he strives to piece together his latest novel, eventually landing upon the idea to write a Christmas tale of personal corruption, redemption, and spectral visitors. With a six-week deadline to meet, Dickens feverously tries to complete his book “A Christmas Carol”, with his friend John Foster (Justin Edwards) and his servant maid Tara (Anna Murphy) helping him through the necessary steps. However, the sudden arrival of Charles’s wayward parents stirs up trouble, especially when it comes to his father John (Jonathan Pryce). Arriving to further complicate his creative process of writing are the visions of Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other various characters from “A Christmas Carol”, which conflict and combat Dickens’s train of thought with their sudden presence and opinions.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I stated above, Charles Dickens is one of the names that many (if not all) know of instantly. His books have had the staying the power and longevity that many author (both now and then) only dreamed of having with their literary works. His tales of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are some of his hallmark works, with many generations reading his novel as well as school to use them as “required reading” for students to read. Heck, what writer / author can say that they have their own word named after them (i.e. Dickensian is used to describe something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive character). As one can imagine, many variations and adaptations have been made from Dickens’s work, including several iconic films like 1951’s Oliver Twist, 1946’s Great Expectations, 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, many others.
This, of course, brings me back to my review for the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, which tells of the story of how Dickens created his classic holiday novel A Christmas Carol. Surprisingly, I actually have never read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (I know shocking!), but I have seen many of the various adaptations (i.e. cartoons, TV parodies, and feature length films) made from the much-celebrated classic. My personal two favorite adaptation versions of A Christmas Carol would have to be Disney’s 1983 26-minute cartoon Mickey’s Christmas Carol and 1992’s The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, Thus, suffice to say that while I haven’t read Dickens’s work (in its original literary form), I’m pretty well-versed in the narrative told in A Christmas Carol. (i.e. Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, The Ghost of Christmas Past, etc.). As for The Man Who Invented Christmas, while didn’t hear that much hype about the movie via online, I do remember seeing the film’s trailer several times, finding the movie’s premise to be interesting (being an origin tale of sorts for the novel’s creation) as well as movie’s cast members (Stevens, Plummer, and Pryce). So, I decided to check this film out to see if its worth the watch. What did I think of it? While it does face some problems, The Man Who Invented-ac Christmas is a unique biographical drama that centers around Dickens’s creation of A Christmas Carol and is brought to life in a well-crafted (and well-acted) feature. It’s not the absolute best Christmas movie out there, but its still a wholesome film that has that touch of Christmas spirit.
Based on the book of the same name by author Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri, whose previous works includes the film Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as well as the HBO miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath. Interestingly, Nalluri approaches this source material in a unique way in which the movie has more of a comedic / lighthearted tone than other biographical films of this nature (i.e. Finding Neverland, Saving Mr. Banks, and Goodbye, Christopher Robin). Yes, the movie does have some emotional drama beats, of which are poignant and meaningful to Dickens’s life and to the story being told in the movie, but there seems to be a bit more comedic levity infused in the film’s narrative. Of course, I’m not talking about slapstick / raunchy comedy, but more whimsical / lighthearted scenes as Dickens rushes here and there as well coming up the actual story of A Christmas Carol. It’s a bit unorthodox for such a “film behind the beloved story”, but Nalluri seems to make it work and that’s some worthy noting. Another interesting aspect that Nalluri does is the creative writing process in how Dickens creates A Christmas; mostly of which how he conjures some of the ideas as well as interacting with some of the characters (i.e. Scrooge). It’s definitely a fun twist for a feature film to show as similar movies show the inception of the story’s idea and the success of it all, but never really showing the actual “process of creating it” or showing the writer’s block that many writers / authors have when forming their narrative. From this angle, Nalluri, as well the film’s screenplay writer Susan Coyne breathe some levity into this narrative as well as filling the movie’s runtime with Christmas spirt, including some of the morals learned in A Christmas Carol.
On a technical level, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a well-made movie. The overall look and feel of the film places a viewer right in the thick of late 1800s Victorian London. Thus, the film’s art direction by Neill Tracey, production design by Paki Smith, costume designs by Leonie Prendergast, and the movie’s cinematography Ben Smithard must be commended for their efforts and talents on this movie to help transport viewers to this appropriate place and time in history. Also, the film’s score, which was composed by Mychael Danna, offers up a nice touch to the film, with its whimsical melodies and soft tender moments of the feature.
Unfortunately, The Man Who Invented Christmas isn’t destined to be the holiday classic / biographical film that it aims to be as several problems to hold it back from reaching the desired level. For starters, despite their efforts to make a wholesome feature length film, the movie mostly plays out like a “made-for-TV” drama feature. What I mean is that the movie doesn’t have that much “cinematic” presence / substance to warrant theatrical production on the big-screen, which is strange (if you think about) as there’s technically is. If this was done by someone like HBO or PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, then the movie could’ve been elevated slightly, especially with those type of television’s pedigree and track-recorded. Unfortunately, the movie plays out like something on ABC family (aka Freeform). This, of course, leads me to another problem, which is the film not digging deep enough within Dickens’s material. While Nalluri and Coyne take a very interesting direction with the film focusing on Dicken’s creative process in ultimately shaping A Christmas Carol, the movie does lack a sense drama. Yes, the movie does present some, especially with Dickens’s irresponsible father showing up on his doorstep, but the movie only skims the surfaces of this topic, despite in being presented as something of a paramount importance to the narrative. This is also further noticed in Dickens’s childhood flashbacks sequences of which he faces hardships (as a child) in a labor factory. The movie explains this, but never shows how he got out of this and how he became the literary writer he’s known for. Personally, I would like to see that as a sort of “rags to riches” montage sequence. Even his other various family members are somewhat presented as “window dressing” for the movie, thinned out and to play a part or two in certain scenes. Lastly, in terms of storytelling, the film does hit a lot of familiar tones and plot beats that are formulaic in nature. This means it’s fairly predictable in how the movie will ultimately play out within its three act story arc.
The cast in The Man Who Invented Christmas is also a highlight of the feature, with many being well-recognized individuals with a good / wholesome thespian acting talents to bring to their respective characters, despite some being plot device characters. Leading the charge is actor Dan Stevens as the film’s central protagonist character Charles Dickens. Known for his roles in Downton Abbey, Legion, and Beauty and the Beast), Stevens does well in the role of Dickens, infusing his charisma into the role and making the character have its innate quirks and charm to him. Stevens also handles himself well in a lead role, with many of the supporting players of the film circling around as he interacts with each of them throughout the course of the film. While its probably not his most defining role (that would-be Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey in my opinion), Steven gives a solid performance as the famed Charles Dickens. The other big named actor in the movie would be seasoned actor Christopher Plummer as Dicken’s A Christmas Carol fictional creation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Even though he’s only a minor character in the film, Plummer, known for his roles in The Sound of Music, A Beautiful Mind, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is fantastic as Scrooge, finding the legendary actor playing the role with ease and looking (as well as speaking) like Dickens’s infamous old miser character. With his dry wit and good timing, Plummer is an absolute delight to see him playing Scrooge and is definitely one of the most memorable characters of all the entire movie.
Two other important characters, who are supporting roles, are worth mentioning as actor Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean and Game of Thrones) and actor Justin Edwards (Love & Friendship and The Thick of It) as Dickens’s deadbeat father John Dickens and Dickens’s colleague friend John Foster. Both these actors do exceptionally well in their respective roles, with Pryce playing a part in some of the more emotional / dramatic parts of the film, while Edwards’s Foster assists Dicken’s in his efforts to get A Christmas Carol finished (as well as being an inspiration for the “jolly” Ghost of Christmas Present). The other supporting players in the movie, including actress Morfydd Clark (Love & Friendship and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as Dickens’s wife Kate, actress Anna Murphy (At Water’s Edge and The Vampire Diaries) as Dickens’s new and youthful servant Tara (the inspiration as the Ghost of Christmas Past), actress Ger Ryan (Raw and Key to the City) as Dickens’s mother Elizabeth, actress Miriam Margolyes (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Rome + Juliet) as Dickens’s head maid Mrs. Fisk, Simon Callow (Outlander and The Phantom of the Opera) as Dickens’s illustrator John leech, and Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as Jacob Marley (the inspiration for Marley). Although well-acted by some talented individuals, these supporting character aren’t really well developed, but serve their purpose in helping in the movie and / or Dickens’s inspirational process in getting A Christmas Carol finished on time.
The tale of how famed author Charles Dickens created one of his beloved A Christmas Carol comes to life in the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas. Director Bharat Nalluri newest film uncovers the unknown tale behind A Christmas Carol, sharing the insight in the classic story’s writing process / evolution as well as into the personal (albeit cinematic) life of Charles Dickens. While the film treads into familiar overtones and plot devices as well as not digging deep enough in its examination of Dicken’s life, the film still offers up an interesting creative process of how Dickens created A Christmas Carol, especially in the movie’s overall presentation and its cast. To me, I thought this movie was good. It wasn’t the absolute the best, but it’s Christmas spirit heart is in the right place, creating a film that intriguing as well as well-made. That being said, my overall recommendation for this movie would be a solid / favorable rental as its something that should be watch (at least once) by many out there, especially fans of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and / or films of this nature (i.e. Finding Neverland and Saving Mr. Banks). While it’s not destined to be a classic holiday movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fun and unique distraction that shares in the yuletide sprit as well as telling the story behind Dickens’s most cherished works.
3.6 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: November 22nd, 2017
Reviewed On: December 12th, 2017
The Man Who Invented Christmas is 104 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements and some mild language