“My lamp’s gone out. I’ve run out of ideas.”
With its egregiously overlong title, some rather clumsy direction, and a script seriously lacking in thematic consistency, The Man Who Invented Christmas has all the trappings of a bad holiday film better suited as another fireside yuletide log than a song to be sung carloers. However, for every ball that this story drops – which, to be frank, happens quite frequently – the movie still shows the confidence and exerts the effort to pick up the fumble and to try even harder on the next attempt. When unwrapped, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks a lot more like a decent TV movie than a stellar feature film, but it’s just charming enough to overcome its many inequities to sprinkle a tiny dose of Christmas cheer. This decorated tree is of the plastic evergreen variety.
Hot off the success of Oliver Twist, a young and successful and deeply indebted Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had to deal with three consecutive financial flops. Despite all of his notoriety in London and his lavish lifestyle, a life in Debtor’s Prison seems just around the corner for Charles. Writing has made him the breadwinner to wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) and their handful of kids, and so Dickens – a man built with a strange mix of stodgy, affluent, giving, and frugal traits – tries to regain his fame and pay off his debts by writing a Christmas story, much to the bemusement of his contemporaries. The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t really work on a logical level because it attempts to combine the modern commercialization of the holiday with an early 19th Century hardened European outlook, but it’s admirably confrontational and willing to bore us with the life of an author who’s suffering from writer’s block.
Charles writes intermittently, often showering ink across the page with a frenzied quill like a Victorian criminal investigator, all before having his train of thought interrupted and completely run off the tracks by family, friends, and a few foes. As portrayed by Stevens – and as he was remembered in his daughter’s diary – Dickens fluctuated between a friendly Father and a stranger devoted to a strict focus on his work. It makes for an enticingly tepid and surly performance. Directed by Bharat Nalluri, showing a keen eye for wit yet an unreasonably loose hold of the plot, The Man Before Christmas brings fictional characters from Dickens’ mind into the real world without any rules, much thought, or tangible repercussions. It’s like watching an alternate version of Drop Dead Fred where the head-games have no basis in or the power to alter reality. The level of execution doesn’t match the intriguingly bizarre concept.
In Nalluri’s film, life doesn’t imitate art but instead influences nearly every single part of it, the names of passing acquaintances and the moments in between filling the cracks of a story waiting to be written with real life personality. The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t have a firm grasp on what it wants to be – all despite a hilarious turn from Christopher Plummer as the sharp and sullen Scrooge – but it does perceive what it’s like to have the mind of a writer. Which, in short, means that the story sympathizes with creatives who use silence to (fingers crossed) produce jubilant praise from audiences. To be just on the cusp of a great idea before hearing a knock at the door. To nearly nail a character’s name until noise echoes up to your ears. And how it’s important to be able to live with and channel that noise in order to filter it through the creative process. The Man Who Invented Christmas isn’t a bad film, nor is anywhere near deserving of being called a Holiday classic, but it’s also quite funny, and it blends simple-minded pauper humor with a legitimate understanding of the sacrifices it takes to create a world from scratch.
“Get the name right and, if you’re lucky, the character will appear.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5