Film review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

David Gritten / 28 November 2017

Saga film critic David Gritten enjoys the fun, wit and theatricality of a new film about Charles Dickens.

It seems an unlikely claim to assert that Charles Dickens ‘invented’ Christmas – one might have thought Jesus Christ, to pluck a name out of the air, could be deemed more influential in that regard.

Still it’s a fact that Dickens’s great novel A Christmas Carol was wildly successful on its publication in 1843, and it can be argued that the routines and rituals of the Christmas season found more favour in Victorian society thereafter.

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The Man Who Invented Christmas provides a fresh slant on Dickens’s beloved work; the film doesn’t tell the story all over again, but suggests ways in which the author was inspired to conceive of it, and to people it with characters as memorable as Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim.

Dickens himself insisted that the novel’s characters began to haunt his daily routine, appearing to him at unexpected moments and effectively telling him how to push his story forward. In the film, these characters appear as real, and have conversations with Dickens in his home and in the outside world.

If that’s a fanciful notion, it’s also an attractive one, and it makes for moments both comic and emotional. It’s a device that lends itself to theatricality, and the cast play out the story with carefully exaggerated flair and dash.

They’re led by Dan Stevens as Dickens, whose performance is a revelation. This role takes him a long way away from the upright, earnest Matthew Crawley he played in Downton Abbey, and Stevens throws himself into the spirit of the piece with gusto, dashing to and fro, trading witticisms and rapid-fire ideas with his fictional creations.

Why is he in such a hurry? Well, a race against the clock enlivens any drama, and in truth Dickens was eager to get A Christmas Carol published and in bookstores by Christmas. His reputation had dimmed somewhat with the publication of two less-than-successful stories (Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge), he was short of money, and he urgently needed to get his career back on track.  His literary rival William Makepeace Thackeray was all too swift to make a beeline for Dickens at the Garrick Club, and observe that his works were not selling well.

Yet the heart of the film’s story is in the busy, chaotic and demanding Dickens household, where his financially irresponsible father (Jonathan Pryce) hovers expectantly. Charles’s wife Catherine beams pleasantly at everyone, but is exhausted; she’s about to produce their fifth child.

Among the splendid actors who play some of the novel’s characters (Annette Badland as Mrs. Fezziwig, Donald Sumpter as Jacob Marley), pride of place must go to 87-year-old veteran Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s Plummer who first offers the word ‘Humbug!’ which comes to define Scrooge’s character – and whenever this great actor sidles on to the screen, you cannot take your eyes off him.

Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) smoothly directed this likable enterprise, which makes no claims to be definitive – though one can envisage it as an amusing guide for older children, studying Dickens and wondering where his ideas came from. It’s also a film that three generations of a family could easily enjoy together. There are many worse ways to spend Christmas.

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