There are many problems with The Man Who Invented Christmas, and the first is its title. It rings false. You hear/see it and immediately think it can’t possibly be true, mainly because of that whole pesky Jesus-was-born-1,843-years-earlier thing. We learn director Bharat Nalluri is trying to suggest Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol influenced the way we look at and celebrate Christmas. That’s fine, but “influenced” is quite different from “invented.”
The film endeavors to show Dickens’ (Dan Stevens) inspirations for the novella, and the hardships he faced in getting it done. For absolutely no good reason, the movie starts in 1842 in New York City, where Dickens is on a promotional tour. From this prologue, we learn Dickens is a popular writer. If you didn’t already know Dickens is a popular writer, you should go
back to high school. Or watch Scrooged.
Three flops and 16 months later, it’s October 1843; Dickens is short on cash, with a wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), four kids and a house full of more family. His father John (Jonathan Pryce) is a moocher and Kate’s pregnant—not the best time to renovate the house. His only friend is John Forster (Justin Edwards), who also seems to be his agent, manager and lifeline to the outside world. Later, Forster is the inspiration for the Ghost of Christmas Present.
When his publishers mistrust him after poor sales for Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens decides to self-publish his next book, A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Problem is, he has a mean case of writer’s block, and inspiration comes and goes. Worse, when he is being productive, he’s annoyingly interrupted.
This isn’t good, and I don’t mean just from Dickens’ point of view. The film’s best scenes come as Dickens imagines Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), Jacob Marley (Donald Sumpter), and the whole gang, spectral and human, and so when his work is interrupted, so, too, are the movie’s most enjoyable moments. Sometimes writers (screenplay by Susan Coyne, book by Les Standiford) and directors can’t get out of their own way—certainly the case here.
Outside Dickens’ imagination, which includes conversations with Scrooge, he gets ideas from the world around him. Names, people and situations will ring familiar for those already acquainted with A Christmas Carol, and these knowing moments comprise the film’s charm. But cumbersome subplots, including Dickens’ irresponsible dad and his troubled childhood, do little to accentuate the main story; as a result, the entire narrative is tedious.
Finally, and ironically, for a movie allegedly about the invention of Christmas, there’s not much Christmas here–those expecting yuletide merriment based on the title will be sadly disappointed. On the other hand, if you weren’t expecting yuletide merriment because you paid attention in high school and think the movie’s about a famous writer, you’ll be only mildly bummed.