When a crass money-grab sequel like “A Bad Moms Christmas” is what passes for yuletide cheer these days, a slightly old-fashioned yet sprightly bough of holly like “The Man Who Invented Christmas” can’t help but warm the cockles of a moviegoer’s heart.
You might beg off upon learning that this is little more than a glorified retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” the cinematic evergreen that, ever since the silent era, has attracted talents ranging from Alistair Sim to George C. Scott, in the role of miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Although Sim’s 1951 effort remains the gold standard, there are also watchable versions featuring Mr. Magoo, Yosemite Sam and the Muppets.
Directed by Indian-born Bharat Nalluri, this highly theatrical “Christmas Carol” has a clever twist: It reveals the whirlwind writing process that Charles Dickens went through, over the course of six weeks, to produce his 1843 novella in time for the holiday. Inspired by historian Les Standiford’s 2008 book “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits,” screenwriter Susan Coyne depicts the popular, 31-year-old author as mired in a creative crisis.
Introduced during a visit to New York City as “the Shakespeare of the novel,” Dickens saw his next three volumes declared failures. As the story gets underway, the father of four learns from his indulgent wife (Morfydd Clark) that a fifth little Dickens is on the way, even as he is growing deeper in debt from an ongoing home renovation project.
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Desperate for an ember of an idea, he listens as his Irish housemaid (Anna Murphy) relates a folk tale about the awakening of spirits at Christmas - complete with eerie, keening sounds. That leads to the idea of a visitation by three ghosts representing Christmas past, present and future.
Much like the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” where people from Dorothy’s life show up as characters in her dream of Oz, a frantic Dickens begins to cherry-pick characters based on chance encounters with real Londoners, from an ancient, wheezy waiter named Marley to his own disabled nephew, who becomes the ever cheerful Tiny Tim.
God has blessed us, every one, with Dan Stevens, who inhabits the character of Dickens beautifully. As the British actor demonstrated in “Downton Abbey” — and in the role of the spellbound manimal in this year’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” — Stevens’ beguiling blue eyes can signal, in a blink, a cavalcade of emotions. (They also help distract from his unfortunate pile of tragic-poet hair.)
As the man who would inspire the character of Scrooge - first spied at night in a cemetery attending a threadbare burial for his business partner, while uttering, “Bah, humbug!” — Christopher Plummer is well chosen. The skinflint materializes now and then to advise Dickens on storytelling and life choices, especially those involving the scribe’s shiftless though charming father. Jonathan Pryce is quite good in the role of a wastrel whose legal troubles forced a young Charlie to toil in a workhouse.
The film’s title perhaps oversells what Dickens achieved with “A Christmas Carol.” He is shown as an early adopter of the German tradition of decorating indoor trees (although Queen Victoria did it first). Nevertheless, during the Industrial Age, a time of both great wealth and dreadful poverty, the writer chose to not just deck the halls, but also to extol acts of charity, the spreading of good cheer, the forgiving of trespasses and, most of all, the possibility of redemption.
All are traits that remain, even in 2017, imminently re-giftable.
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Rated: PG for mild crude language, frightening images. Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce. Director: Bharat Nalluri. Running time: 104 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21.