'The Man Who Invented Christmas' Film Review
by Will Lindus
There’s a manic energy infused in The Man Who Invented Christmas, the story of author Charles Dickens and the personal revelations and business dealings he experienced during the creation of his beloved Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol. Burdened by a fast-approaching publishing deadline and the hardships of hosting his spendthrift father for the holidays, Dickens appropriates the people he encounters in his life to form the basis for the beloved characters of Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. As a whole, the film suffers from being a bit too milquetoast for its own good, sanding the edges off of the story until there is almost nothing substantial remaining.
Part of what is baffling about The Man Who Invented Christmas is its PG rating. The nastier characters Dickens encounters aren’t all that nasty, and some of the hardships Dickens faced in his youth (shown via flashback sequences) feel sanitized. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; there’s value in films that the entire family can enjoy during the holidays. However, the quirky and whimsical moments in the film, the ones where Dickens interacts directly with the characters of his story as he attempts to flesh them out, feel underwhelming. I can’t imagine children finding much to spark their imaginations here, and can envision them being a bit bored, actually. Who is this film for?
There’s a discordant nature to the performances of the film; Dan Stevens plays a young Charles Dickens with a wide-eyed, hammy energy that feels suitable for the family-friendly atmosphere the film is going for. His facial expressions are over the top, selling Dickens as a mad genius of a man who is driven as much by his inspiration as he is by his unintentional greed. More on that shortly. Alternatively, Christopher Plummer plays the role of Scrooge, materializing behind Dickens to serve as a sounding board for the writer’s story and as a mechanism for the audience to see how Dickens envisions and fleshes out his most famous character. Plummer’s performance is understated and subtle, the type of performance that values nuanced sincerity over quirkiness. Neither Stevens or Plummer does a bad job with their performances, but both feel plucked from different films, and their energies just don’t mesh into anything cohesive.
The strangest misfire with The Man Who Invented Christmas, however, is in its discussion of the impact of A Christmas Carol had way Christmas is celebrated in Western culture even to this day. You see, in Victorian England, Christmas was considered a more minor holiday by the masses. While the film ignores some of the other influences involved in the revitalization of Christmas, including the evangelical push of the Oxford Movement, A Christmas Carol and its broad appeal helped to shape the concept of Christmas into what we know it to be today. At its best, it is a charitable holiday filled with goodwill, family, friends, and festive food and drink, many of these elements inspired by Dickens and his story. Even the phrase ‘Merry Christmas,’ while not invented by Dickens, became a part of our lexicon because of its inclusion in the story.
However, as we follow Dickens through The Man Who Invented Christmas, his motivations are not based on charity or holiday spirit; he is facing financial ruin, and uses Christmas as the basis of his story for shrewd business reasons. If the film had more wit or more of a satirical focus, there’s a story to be told here about the modern commercialization of Christmas and how this monetization of ‘goodwill towards men’ traces back to the holiday’s resurgence in popular culture. The film doesn’t seek this path, instead trying to tell a genuine and heartwarming story through the more cynical eyes of a businessman crafting art for profit.
Bottom Line: The Man Who Invented Christmas is an unfocused piece that will likely not be the Christmas film to bring your family together in spirit. It seeks to be both zany and understated, historically accurate and sanitized, charitable and shrewd, and the combination of so many disparate elements simply doesn’t work. Bah, humbug!
2 out of 5 Bear Paws