Mark Reviews Movies

The Man Who Invented Christmas


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bharat Nalluri

Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Jonathan Pryce, Anna Murphy, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Ger Ryan

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 11/22/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 21, 2017

This telling of Charles Dickens' writing of A Christmas Carol is an odd hybrid of a biography of the author and an interpretation of, arguably, his most famous work. The blending of Dickens' life story with the tale of an elderly miser who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve inevitably leads us to make connections between the two. Those connections are encouraged by Susan Coyne's screenplay for The Man Who Invented Christmas (based on Les Standiford's non-fiction book), which imagines Dickens as man consumed by his own ghosts—from his past and of his created characters, who spring to life and offer commentary on the author's various problems.

Are they worthwhile connections, though? The entire movie is founded upon the notion that the author—his or her own life, stated intentions, and worldview—should serve as the primary source for interpreting a piece of literature. In other words, we have to understand a writer in order to fully understand what he or she has written. To be sure, an author's biography can serve as a helpful guide to appreciating a work. A good work, though, should stand on its own, without an audience knowing a thing about the person who created it.

In order to comprehend the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a conservative pinchpenny into a charitable man, do we need to believe that Dickens himself had otherworldly visitors who communicated with him? Of course we don't.

In this case, the conceit of a Dickens who has visions actually confuses the point of his story. Someone who watches this movie and then visits or revisits A Christmas Carol might begin seeing the author within the character of Scrooge, even though there's little evidence to suggest that the liberal writer would have anything to do with a man as cold-hearted and cruel as the fictional businessman. Such a reading does a disservice both to the writer and to the story itself.

Dickens is played by Dan Stevens as a bright-eyed, unstoppable optimist, who finds himself in financial trouble after a trio of poorly selling books. It's 1843, and Charles has bought a new home for his family, believing that his success would continue unabated. His volunteer agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) convinces the publishing house to give Charles an advance for a new book, but Charles still is in debt to his attorney, is met with skepticism by the publishing world, and is receiving poor notices in the papers.

Inspiration strikes while touring London, most notably seeing the funeral of a man who only lived for money and whose burial is only attended by his business partner, who offers single word on the matter: "Humbug." From that chance encounter, Charles invents the character of Scrooge, who appears in his study in the form of Christopher Plummer. As he crafts the tale, Charles has to deal with an unexpected visit from his spendthrift father John (Jonathan Pryce), his wife Kate's (Morfydd Clark) feelings of being neglected by her husband, and the challenges of self-publishing a book that has to be released before Christmas arrives—a mere six weeks from when he begins writing.

The story of A Christmas Carol plays out in brief scenes as Charles writes and reads his manuscript. The audience is primarily a new housemaid (played by Anna Murphy), whom the author admires for her ability to read and her past in the London workhouses. The scenes are like isolated stage shows, with the characters acting out parts of the book's dialogue, only to behave like actors backstage whenever a scene has finished. The characters are also themselves—as in Charles' creations—who offer approval or criticism depending on how their roles are being represented in the book.

The main player, obviously, is Scrooge, who rails against Charles' altruistic view of the world and, through his various opinions on the poor, insists that he is an unapologetic, unforgiveable villain. Charles arrives at one ending, with Scrooge allowing the vision of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to be fulfilled. Nobody likes it, because it means the death of Tiny Tim (who, in the movie, has an analog in Charles' sickly nephew).

In the movie's view, everything about this story must somehow be connected to Charles' experience, whether it's overhearing a word or statement from someone in the real world that becomes part of a character's voice, seeing someone who fits the mold of a fictional creation, or, more importantly to the story of Charles' life, how his present relationships and past difficulties are represented within the text. A young Charles was also at a workhouse, due to his father's debts, and Scrooge's confrontation with the grave becomes a reflection of Charles' confrontation with that past. Scrooge considers Charles a hypocrite for the way he treats his father, which means that Scrooge's awakening to goodness mirrors Charles' changing opinion of John.

All of it is very tidy in a way that, still, doesn't fit together. The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a faulty notion of literary analysis and appreciation, but beyond that, it doesn't provide any convincing insights into Dickens or A Christmas Carol.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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