Here’s the thing: I’m a Charles Dickens geek. A Christmas Carol is probably my favorite novel, for both the economy of its storytelling, and the scope of its story. I have an insatiable appetite for the Carol, and I’ve seen every version, good, bad, and ugly—from Alistair Sim and Bill Murray to Mr. Magoo and the Muppets. Still, glutton that I am for this Dickensian feast, you have to wonder how anyone could possibly find anything new to bring to the story.
The answer is The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful fantasia on the writing of A Christmas Carol at a pivotal moment in the life of its author. It’s based on Les Standiford’s nonfiction book on how Dickens, beset by financial and family worries, set out to write and publish a Christmas book in only six weeks. But dry facts are transformed into delicious fiction by scriptwriter Susan Coyne, who combines Dickens’ real life with the volatility of his active imagination—whose impudent characters keep overflowing into every other aspect of his life.
Directed by Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day), the movie begins in 1842, where Dickens (Dan Stevens) is treated like a rock star on a speaking tour of America. A year later, after three poor-selling “flops,” he promises his anxious publishers he’ll produce a Christmas story in time for the approaching holiday—although he hasn’t an idea in his head.
With a new house to furnish and an ever-burgeoning family, Dickens roams the London streets in search of inspiration—an elderly waiter at the Garrick Club; beggars in the street. But it’s not until he overhears the young Irish nanny, Tara (winsome Anna Murphy), telling a spooky story to his children, that Dickens gets the idea for a ghost story set on Christmas Eve—as experienced by a greedy, covetous old sinner named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), who calls the season “Humbug!”
As the story takes shape in his head, Dickens’ characters come alive onscreen, haunting him like Scrooge’s ghosts, occupying his study to egg him on, or criticize his story. (They’re like actors backstage, waiting for their script.) Meanwhile, in the real world, his publishers reject the first stave of his story; Dickens angrily returns their check, pays to publish the installments, and hires illustrator, Leech (Simon Callow), out of his own pocket—while desperately trying to finish the book. The arrival of his perpetually impecunious father (Jonathan Pryce), the role-model for Mr. Micawber, further complicates things.
Coyne is the ideal translator of this material, well-versed in acting, writing and theater. (She created the hilarious, cult Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, about the tension between art and commerce in a modern Shakespearean theater company.) Her scenes of Dickens at work ring especially true. Every writer has experienced that moment: the idea has come, you’re just starting to commune with your characters, and boom! Somebody knocks on the door. The phone rings. Your story dissolves and you’re back in the real world.
And Stevens is a master of the eye-rolling slow burn as Dickens, reacting to every interruption with teeth-gritting cordiality. He’s great as the physical embodiment of the writing process (which is generally not a spectator sport), stalking around his study, having animated conversations with characters only he (and we) can see.
But what’s most interesting about Coyne’s interpretation—and it sneaks up on you amid the fun and frivolity—is the way Dickens himself is shown to have a dark side that also informs his work. Beneath his unfailingly polite and jovial exterior, he too has begun to forge a chain; it’s not yet as long as Scrooge’s, but redemption must be sought before he can move on.
You don’t have to be an expert on the Carol, or Dickens’ oeuvre, to appreciate the sly gusto with which Coyne and company weave references to Dickens’ world and his work into the fabric of their film. Yet this is a highly original work of holiday cheer: witty, bracingly unsentimental (yet honestly moving), and hugely entertaining.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS
**** (out of four)
With Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, and Jonathan Pryce. Written by Susan Coyne. Directed by Bharat Nalluri. A Bleecker Street release. Rated PG. 104 minutes.