If ever there was a retro mainstream movie in this current climate of big-budget superhero movies or small, quirky independent ones, then The Man Who Invented Christmas is it. It is tailor-made for a particular demographic that has long been marginalized by Hollywood. Those filmgoers who are over 40 and who still go to the cinemas though in ever decreasing numbers. Although tailor made for them, it is still a movie for everyone this Holiday season.
Man purports to tell the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. At the time (1843) the celebration of Christmas had been in decline, and it wasn’t even considered a major holiday. Before I go any further, I should point out that this movie is a classic cinematic example of how it should have been rather than how it was.
At this time in his career, Charles Dickens was 31, internationally famous thanks to Oliver Twist, and suffering from writer’s block after three flops in a row. He was also heavily in debt which preyed upon his mind as his father had spent time in a debtor’s prison when Dickens was a child.
After hearing a young Irish maid transfix his children with stories of ghosts at Christmastime, Dickens is inspired to write a story about a miser who is visited by spirits on Christmas Eve. With little more than an outline and his regular publishers cool to the idea, he borrows more money and decides to publish it himself.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Man is getting to see how Dickens went about constructing his novels. How the real-life people he meets or the phrases he hears become the material for his stories. Dickens loved to act out his characters. We not only see this but, once the characters are created, how they become a part of his daily life.
Cue Christopher Plummer. The 87-year-old actor, who has been in movies since 1958’s Wind Across the Everglades, is the perfect incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge. His exchanges with Dickens as his character evolves are one of the many highlights this movie has to offer.
Dan Stevens, relieved to be done with Matthew on Downton Abbey, has a wonderful time as Dickens. He brings the author’s dynamic personality to life not only through his physical movements, but Stevens has a wonderfully expressive face which he puts to good use.
There are two other performances to take note of. One is Justin Edwards as John Forster, Dickens’ agent and friend, who inadvertently becomes the inspiration for the Ghost of Christmas Present. The other is veteran Brit actor Jonathan Pryce as Dickens’ father who alternately delights and exasperates his son. In fact, all the supporting players, including a cameo from Simon Callow as illustrator John Leach, fit their roles perfectly.
However, the real star of the movie from my perspective is the physical look of the film. It’s full of wonderfully theatrical lighting with lots of reds and blues and camerawork that is content to focus on the story rather than itself. It brought back memories of England’s Hammer Films from the 1950s and 60s as well as the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott. If the look wasn’t a conscious decision, then it’s a remarkable coincidence.
At one time, not that long ago, The Man Who Invented Christmas would have been considered a significant Holiday offering. Now it’s opening only in limited release. I don’t know how long it will play in Asheville. Right now it’s in only one theater. If you enjoy a new twist on a familiar story that is well told from a cinematic point-of-view of then head out and see The Man Who Invented Christmas. Like its source material, it’s full of old-school Christmas spirit.
Review by Chip Kaufmann