In “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a movie that follows Charles Dickens' creation of “A Christmas Carol,” writing a novel looks like a lot of fun. Dickens (Dan Stevens) gets to sit around all day, play-acting out all the parts, even chatting with Ebenezer Scrooge and other beloved characters.
To a real-life novelist sweating over a blank page, this depiction of the writing process is about as authentic as being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. But Bharat Nalluri’s biopic is so charming and endearing that it gets away with a lot of artistic and historical liberties. Besides, watching somebody actually write a book would be really boring.
Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is delightful as the antic Dickens. As the film opens in 1842, he's taking a well-received but exhausting American tour, greeted by crowds as the “Shakespeare of the novel.” But back home in London, his last few books aren’t selling so well, and he’s carrying enough debt that he could really use a hit.
In a stroke of inspired desperation, Dickens pitches the idea of writing a Christmas ghost story. His publishers are lukewarm. At the time, Christmas is considered a “minor” holiday, sniffed at by employers who resent having to give their workers the day off. Dickens decides to publish it himself, planning to bang out the entire book in six weeks in autumn in order to have it bound, illustrated and on the shelves before Dec. 25.
With a witty script by Susan Coyne, based on Les Standiford’s book of the same name, the movie is a lot of fun. Stevens brings energy and wit to Dickens as he scampers around London, plucking inspiration like a magpie from the different characters he runs across. His Irish maid (Anna Murphy) inspires the Ghost of Christmas Past, while a cadaverous attorney (Donald Sumpter) becomes the doomed Jacob Marley.
But it’s when Dickens stumbles across a bitter businessman burying his partner in a graveyard (Christopher Plummer) that he finds his Ebenezer Scrooge. The chance to see the great Plummer sneering and snarling as Scrooge, even in kind of an offbeat, post-modern way, is worth the price of admission.
Dickens’ office starts to become crowded with these characters as he writes, offering inspiration and even criticism as he scribbles away. (A speech offered by Scrooge on the virtues of the free market is quickly rejected.)
As the deadline looms and Dickens struggles to figure out an ending, the film digs into his traumatic childhood memories that fueled his commitment to write about kindness and charity. As a boy, his feckless father (Jonathan Pryce) was sent to debtor’s prison, and young Charles was pulled out of school and sent to work 12-hour days in a shoe polish factory.
In the film, the experience haunts him, with Scrooge the embodiment of his unresolved anger at his father, and his fear of being poor. The depiction of a society with no safety net, where workhouses and debtor’s prisons entrap the poor, seems uncomfortably relevant today.
The idea that Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a way to vanquish his childhood trauma feels a little pat. For a more realistic and less complimentary look at Dickens, I highly recommend 2013's “The Invisible Woman,” starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes. But “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a high-energy, family-friendly movie that offers a fresh, spirited take on one of Western civilization’s most famous tales. God bless us, every one.