THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriter: Susan Coyne
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes, Simon Callow
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/11/17
Opens: November 22, 2017
Perhaps the biggest difference between movie critics and an ordinary audience is that most people probably prefer sentimental stories, whether comedies or drama, while critics consider such emotions gooey, sticky, clinging to the teeth, saccharine. Perhaps that’s why Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” sold far more in its time (or even at present) than “Bleak House,” “Martin Chuzzlewit” (which tanked when first released, and even “A Tale of Two Cities.” Everybody loves Christmas, a time that people feel charitable, have tender words for those of us who are less fortunate in health or prosperity, and may enjoy a good laugh or a nice cry. With “The Man Who Invented Christmas” one might expect critics to trash the sentimentality, but I for one could not bring myself to follow in the paths of writers with hearts of ice. That’s not to say it’s the next “Vertigo” or my favorite 3-hanky movie “Lassie Come Home,” but it’s quite entertaining, even absorbing, though its principal performer in the title role, Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, has the periodic, wide-eyed expressions that make one think that this movie is made for children. (One critic, formerly on TV until he like all his colleagues, was dropped, said that the principal role could be played by a cocker spaniel. Not entirely true, even though I adore the long-eared spaniels.
We tend to think that mature writers are in their forties or fifties by the time they turn out their magnum opus, but Dickens, who died at fifty-eight, knocked out “A Christmas Carol” at the age of thirty-one—while he was working with his wife on producing ten children. Since many novelists write what they know, or rather what they have in some way lived through, the movie makes clear that Dickens, suffering from writers’ block after his last three books tanked, was inspired by real people whom he turned into legendary figures. Scrooge, for example, one of his villains along with Oliver Twist’s Fagin, was like a miser he knew. Scrooge visited him in dreams and hallucinations, played by Christopher Plummer in the role of a fellow who thought only of money and believed that he could live without friends and family—at least the ones who were not painted green. By contrast he glamorized a poor family who despite having a crippled and sick child, Tiny Tim, were happy.
Bharat Nalluri, who directs and whose “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” about a fired London governess who is catapulted into the world of celebs, adapts freely from the real life of Dickens (available in Wikipedia, or course), showing the author’s own family as a mixed bag—including his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark), his ne’er-do-well dad John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce), and his servant Tara (Anna Murphy). Scrooge’s conversion, after getting looks at three ghosts who reveal the poverty of the rich man’s life, is too sudden to be believed.
Outside of the central plot, we get a glimpse of what life in the mid-19th Century was like for intellectuals, as we see Dickens hanging with his agent John Foster (Justin Edwards) at the Garrick Club. You can take the kiddies to this and not suffer at all watching this appealing, if saccharine film, the cruelest segments showing the young Dickens’s misadventures in a so-called workhouse (that’s the kind of place that gets orphan Oliver Twist whipped for asking for doubles in soup) and a caged crow who has hardly room to walk in his small cage but is thankfully liberated before the conclusion.
Rated PG. 104 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B
Overall – B