THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS tells tale of Dickens’ creation of ‘A Christmas Carol’
– By Cate Marquis –
Dan Stevens gives a frenetic performance as Charles Dickens racing to finish writing “A Christmas Carol” in time to publish before the holiday, in THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS. Directed by Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY), this film has all the Christmas color and Victorian period costumes and sets you could want in a Christmas film. The film is mostly a clever way to retell the famous tale, as characters spring from the author’s imagination while he struggles with his own family issues and races to meet a pre-Christmas release deadline, but it also touches on how his short novel transformed a once-minor holiday into the tradition we know today.
People can hardly conceive the idea that Christmas was not always celebrated as the major holiday it is today, but before Dickens wrote his brief but moving Christmas tale, it was just another minor holiday on the English calendar, nowhere near as big as Easter. The change may have been afoot, with people in England starting to adopt the German tradition of a tannenbaum, a Christmas tree. There was also growing social awareness of, and public debate over, the plight of the poor in the Industrial Revolution, but Christmas was not yet a season of giving and kindness to the less-fortunate.
This story takes place at a low point in Charles Dickens’ (Dan Stevens) career, after his early success was followed by the publication of a few under-performing novels. Dickens is pressed for money, something he conceals from his well-meaning, neglected wife Kate (Morfydd Clark), and feels pressured to prove himself as an author as well, particularly to the irritating William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp). With the help of his loyal friend John Forster (Justin Edwards), Dickens hits on the idea of a Christmas-themed novel. But his publisher is not interested in a book about that little-celebrated holiday, so Dickens decides to publish the novel himself. That decision means he must not only write it but arrange the illustrations and printing as well as come up with the financing, all in time to release it before Christmas. To add to the pressure, Dickens ne’er-do-well father John (Jonathan Pryce) and mother (Ger Ryan) have turned up on his doorstep, out of cash and asking to stay with him, while the elder Dickens writes an article for a magazine for which he claims to have a contract.
This sets up not only a ticking-clock for Charles Dickens but all kinds of mayhem to beset the author as he struggles with his book and its characters. Dan Stevens gives us a hot-tempered, high-energy Dickens, who always seems on the edge of exploding as he battles writer’s block and rails against every interruption.
Colorful characters are a signature of Dickens’ novels, and one of this film’s delights is how it brings them to life wonderfully and weaves them into its tale. Dickens is taunted bitingly by Christopher Plummer’s Scrooge, glowered at by ghostly Marley (Donald Sumpter) and warmed by the jolly Spirit of Christmas Present, who looks just like his friend Forster. The author’s room fills with characters, and they follow and talk to the author as he wanders London streets seeking inspiration, or at least distraction from his writer’s block. At other more sober moments, Dickens relives the terrors of his childhood, remembering seeing his father sent to debtor’s prison and reliving the bullying he endured working as a child laborer in a boot-black factory.
Every writer who has struggled with writer’s block knows Dickens’ pain in that dilemma but the looming Christmas deadline makes it worse. If he does not publish before the holiday, the book won’t sell and his meager funds will he lost. While Dickens struggles to find his characters and his plot, his personal life intrudes, particularly his irritatingly irresponsible father. Jonathan Pryce is wonderful in the role of John Dickens, charming but cluelessly self-indulgent, begging money and them splurging on a new waistcoat, more a child than a parent to his son.
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