The Man Who Invented Christmas review: Carol biopic hits all the right notes
3 stars. This tale about the writing of Dickens' classic is slight but very watchable, says Paul Whitington
Charles Dickens, we are told by his biographers, was a whirlwind of energy, a nervy whippet of a man who maintained an exhausting writing and performing schedule that left all others in his wake. He was driven not so much by ambition but more a morbid fear of the poverty he had experienced in his childhood.
That anxious, inexhaustible quality is nicely captured by Dan Stevens' central performance in this amiable, bluff, broadly drawn film. The title refers to the fact that, in A Christmas Carol, Dickens defined many of the qualities we most closely associate with the festive season, but as we discover, writing it wasn't easy.
He might have been terrified by poverty, but Dickens spent money like a drunken sailor and, by the early winter of 1843, had hopelessly overextended himself. The success of Oliver Twist had turned him into a literary superstar, but his last three books had bombed and his publishers were growing anxious. What they didn't know was that Dickens was secretly suffering from a severe case of writer's block.
Life is hectic for Dickens (Stevens), whose wife, four children and handsome London home all depend on his furious literary output. But that output has ground to a halt and try as he might, the great man cannot get a new story started. He's wandering the streets of London disconsolately one night when he chances on a funeral: the deceased was a notorious Gradgrind, and there are no mourners save a sour old business partner, who mutters the word "humbug" as he brushes past the watching author.
It is, according to this film at any rate, the beginning of an exhausting creative journey that will lead Dickens to Ebenezer Scrooge and a story that would completely redefine the meaning and significance of Christmas. He will pick up similar helpful snatches of inspiration along the way, from an elderly waiter at his club who goes by the name of Marley, to a crippled nephew who'll be the model for Tiny Tim. But just as he's getting to grips with the novella, his concentration is shattered by the arrival of his father, John (Jonathan Pryce).
Dickens has never forgiven his dad for the disasters of his childhood: a hopeless featherhead when it came to anything practical, John's financial recklessness had destroyed his family and condemned his 12-year-old son to a traumatising stint in a cruelly run blacking factory.
Dickens senior is good at other things, like telling stories and loving children, but Charles can only see the spendthrift who blighted his life.
This familial psychodrama will play havoc with his creative process, but Dickens undertakes to finish the book in just six weeks in order to rush it out for Christmas, taking the huge additional risk of publishing the book himself.
It paid off, of course, as Scrooge's road to redemption became one of the defining fables of the Victorian age.
In The Man Who Invented Christmas, Dickens constantly bickers with his most famous character, embodied with great skill by Christopher Plummer. In the quiet of his study, all the book's principal players materialise to argue with their author, and there's a certain amount of truth to this dramatic device because Dickens really did try to imagine meeting his various characters and getting to know them.
This film's attempt to describe the writing of A Christmas Carol without actually telling that story is slightly frustrating, however, because you find yourself wanting to watch that marvellously poetical narrative unfold instead. That said, Bharat Nalluri's film is entertaining if a little over-sweetened at times. Victorian London was a dreadful place, but is hopelessly sentimentalised here. Stevens is fine in the lead and his interactions with Scrooge and his father provide the most dramatically interesting moments in the film. There's comedy as well as melodrama and Dickens' great rival Thackeray is the butt of many jokes. But mostly The Man Who Invented Christmas is brisk and cheery and ever so slightly schmaltzy.
The Man Who Invented Christmas, (PG, 104mins) - Three stars
Films coming soon...
The Disaster Artist (James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Alison Brie); Stronger (Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson); Blade Of The Immortal (Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki); Menashe (Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski).