“The Man Who Invented Christmas” needed to accomplish two tasks: Tell the story of how Charles Dickens created the beloved classic “A Christmas Carol,” and in turn illustrate how the story’s popularity helped turn December 25 into a cultural behemoth.
Alas, it succeeds at neither, even though its source material (the non-fiction book by Les Standiford) excels at both. As a portrait of an author on the verge of a breakthrough, this is a run-of-the-mill, occasionally clumsy biopic; as for contextualizing Christmas, it never explains how it functioned before Dickens and only briefly mentions how it changed after him.
(When one of Dickens’ publishers shrugs off Christmas as a minor holiday, my very educated sister-in-law turned to me at the press screening and asked, “Wait, what?”)
The history of Christmas is a fascinating one, from the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, to the church’s moving of his birthdate so as to capitalize on the popularity of pagan holidays like Saturnalia and Yule, to the Puritans banning it as a feast of licentiousness, to the abundant, familial celebration we know today. Standiford touches upon all of this, and on how the immense popularity of “A Christmas Carol” changed the culture around the holiday, but screenwriter Susan Coyne (“Anne of Green Gables”) and director Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) gloss right over it in a way that will leave most viewers befuddled by the film’s title.
While Dickens (played here by Dan Stevens) was a well-established writer by 1843, the author was in something of a slump before he decided to take a crack at writing a Christmas story. “Barnaby Rudge” and “Martin Chuzzlewit” were slow sellers, and his essays about his trip to America hadn’t flown off the shelves either; meanwhile, he and his family were grandly restoring a new house, and his constantly-in-debt father John (Jonathan Pryce) was one of many people in Dickens’ orbit with hands perpetually out.
Having decided fairly late in the year to write “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens had relatively few weeks to get the story written and published, so there’s certainly some suspense involved in the book’s creation. And as Coyne and Nalluri tell the story, each new character Dickens created followed him around, waiting for him to figure out how to finish his tale. The most notable of these fictional hangers-on is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge, brought to life with such delightful biliousness by Christopher Plummer that “The Man Who Invented Christmas” should, if nothing else, exist as an audition reel for a straightforward adaptation with Plummer in the lead.
There are aspects of the film that work, from the very convincing period interiors to a terrific ensemble of British character actors, including Miriam Margolyes (as Dickens’ housekeeper), Simon Callow (as John Leech, whose memorable illustrations are an essential ingredient to “A Christmas Carol”) and Miles Jupp (hilarious as Dickens’ smarmy rival William Makepeace Thackeray). All this talent on hand serves to highlight the blandness of Stevens in the central role. A writer writing is, admittedly, a mostly thankless task in movies, but given how this particular book connects to Dickens’ bleak youth working in a factory while his father was sent off to debtor’s prison, this character offers plenty for an actor willing to dive in; Stevens — here, anyway — seems content to bob at the surface.
Cinematographer Ben Smithard (“Goodbye Christopher Robin”) commits the sin of many a made-for-TV adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” by making industrial London far too bright and shiny; it’s a little hard to swallow Dickens’ complaints about the “damn London fog” when there are Malibu levels of sunshine coming in through the window behind him. London itself gets short shrift, since it appears to be about three blocks wide, unlike in more sumptuous productions that take over all the studios at Pinewood or Shepperton to recreate the city in all its 19th century glory and grime.
Most frustratingly, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is the sort of author biopic that reduces the artist to a stenographer. People around Dickens spout off zingers like “Are there no workhouses?” or “A poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every 25th of December,” and it’s like the book writes itself. That book, nearly 175 years later, remains an essential element to the holiday; this movie about its creation will be forgotten by Boxing Day.