The Man Who Invented Christmas is pretty straightforward and harmless as far as movies go. But it contains enough bizarre asides and nonlinear tangents to make me think there’s a far weirder and darker little film hiding somewhere in previous drafts of the script. In ostensibly being the tale of Charles Dickens creating the characters and world that would eventually become “A Christmas Carol,” it goes about the business of attempting to be too many things at once and, as a result, never really settles on simply being the easy, family-friendly holiday film it might have set out to be.
None of this is to say it’s a bad movie. It ticks a lot of boxes that make me believe — without evoking too much in the way of ghosts of Christmas past — that this is a film our old friend Ken Hanke might have championed to anyone who would listen. I can just imagine him introducing it to an audience with “It’s by no means a great film, but …” It’s big, bold, exuberant and full of heart — or something like it — with enough wild cinematic flourishes that it could have been something truly special in a more experimental director’s hands. As it stands, there’s enough here to recommend it if only for the fact that it reminded me in equal measures of Tom Tykwer’s Perfume, Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden and Robert Zemeckis’ own take on A Christmas Carol. Not the most complimentary set of influences, but there you go.
We meet Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) in somewhat of a slump, fresh from a string of flops but nonetheless living the life of a celebrity nineteenth century writer in London. Audiences love him, his family is proud of him, but his publishers have no idea what to do with him. Sensing that money is about to get tight if he doesn’t act fast, he knows he has to come up with a new novel soon. It’s in these early stages that The Man Who Invented Christmas is most uneven, trying too hard to be the sort of corny story where the writer gets his inspiration — almost word for word in some cases — from the people and places around him. It’s like the John Lennon “Imagine” scene from Forrest Gump blown up to feature length. Mercifully, this eventually gives way to a much more inspired take on its own material, reaching almost Deconstructing Harry or Adaptation. levels of metacommentary on the process of writing and artistic creation, evoking less the true story of how Ebenezer Scrooge and company came into this world and more what it must be like to live inside Dickens’ head. As I said, it’s weird.
Speaking of Scrooge, Christopher Plummer is great here, as are Jonathan Pryce and Anna Murphy in supporting roles. Pryce, in particular, brings an air of tragedy to the proceedings that gives a weight to the story it would otherwise lack. I don’t see it becoming a classic by any means, but it certainly beats the depressing alternatives of A Bad Moms Christmas or Daddy’s Home 2.