The Man Who Invented Christmas – movie review

by James Robins / 14 December, 2017
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A charming drama captures Dickens as he creates his Yuletide classic. 

No honest film about writing will ever be interesting. The reality of sitting for hours at a desk is painfully uncinematic. The next best thing is to go to the source of a writer’s most famous works: Alan Ginsberg’s brush with murder in Kill Your Darlings, JM Barrie’s strange romance in Finding Neverland, a Kansas murder in Capote, the Bard of Avon’s affairs in Shakespeare in Love, or a soft toy and an enchanted wood, as in Goodbye Christopher Robin (reviewed last week).

This treacly Yuletide pudding about Charles Dickens’s creation of A Christmas Carol follows the same formula.

It opens with the Victorian writer (Dan Stevens) bemoaning the fallout from a slew of duds that have followed the success of Oliver Twist. In the grip of writer’s block, he’s being scolded by an expectant wife and nagged by stuffy publishers. Even rival William Makepeace Thackeray (a delightful cameo from Miles Jupp) is making jibes at Dickens’s expense at the gentlemen’s club, which is a sure sign of impending failure.

Thanks to the kind of providence writers dream of but never actually experience, he stumbles on inspiration: a waiter at the club is named Marley. He witnesses a pauper’s funeral overseen by a decrepit figure. Does he have a name? Scrouse, Schwinger, Schoodle. He rolls them on the tongue. Scrooge!

And there he appears, a grumpy apparition in the garret in the form of Christopher Plummer. Tiny Tim and Mr Fezziwig soon follow, prodding the author along and probing his neuroses. Not so much writing, then, as transcribing imaginary conversations.

Working from a script by Susan Coyne, adapted from Les Standiford’s 2008 book of the same name, director Bharat Nalluri adroitly weaves together Dickens’s own life with the book’s moral lessons.

In the process, he helps the author realise that he was becoming a bit too Scrooge-like in his relationship with his father (Jonathan Pryce), whose stint in debtors’ prison forced his son into a Victorian factory at a young age.

It’s fluffy stuff, to be sure, and there’s an inevitable scene of reconciliation around a Christmas tree, which is just too much to bear. But the fantasy of imagination coming to life in front of you is a seductive one.

Plummer’s Scrooge is enjoyably crotchety, and Stevens plays the great storyteller with pep. Nalluri’s film captures in equal measure the charm and the schlocky sentiment of Dickens’s work.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Icon Films Australia and New Zealand

This article was first published in the December 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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