Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is a mainstay of the holiday season, so it’s not surprising that an enterprising author might pitch the claim that Dickens did not so much add to the customs of Christmas as create the holiday in its modern sense. That author, of course, is Les Sandiford, and his 2008 book is titled The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. I’ll let historians debate how much of Sandiford’s claim is based on truth, and how much is hyperbole, but it seems to me that Washington Irving, Clement Clark Moore, and the Germanic branch of the British royal family, among others, had quite a bit to do with establishing modern Christmas customs as well. But never mind all that: Bharat Nalluri’s film The Man Who Invented Christmas, based on Sandiford’s book, isn’t really interested in examining Christmas customs before or after 1843. Besides, it fails on so many other levels that failing to support the argument stated in its title may be the least of its sins.
Nalluri’s conceit is that Dickens was inspired to write A Christmas Carol thanks to a serious of fortuitous events that occur with a regularity that puts Slumdog Millionaire to shame. While lunching on oysters with a friend, Dickens is served by a waiter named Jacob Marley whose physical type meshes perfectly with the way the character is generally portrayed. People around him speak verbatim lines from the not-yet-written book (“are there no workhouses?” and the like). There’s even a real-life analogue to Tiny Tim, because everyone knows that that imagination is overrated when it comes to writing fiction.
If this description is making you gag, imagine how painful it was for me to sit through this film. It pains me even more to report that the screenplay is credited to Susan Coyne, who work I very much liked on Slings and Arrows. Of course, it may be that she produced exactly the screenplay requested, and that blame should instead be laid at the feet of whoever cooked up this preposterous idea in the first place.
The Man Who Invented Christmas may be a misfire, but the blame cannot be laid at the feet of a fine crew of actors who give it their all. Dan Stevens works hard to bring Dickens to life, and if his portrayal is a bit preposterous, I’m not sure he’s the one to blame (one of the tricky things about reviewing movies is not knowing who made what decision, and as with the screenplay, Stevens may have produced exactly the performance requested). Justin Edwards (John Forster) is excellent as Dickens’ best friend, as is Morfydd Clark as his wife and Jonathan Pryce as his father, but it’s Christopher Plummer who really steals the show as Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Man Who Invented Christmas was shot on a soundstage in Dublin, and while the interiors look great, the exteriors are another story. There seems to be a lot of unnecessary CGI (a particularly fake-looking snowstorm near the end was the last straw for me), and very little sense of London as a real place, but otherwise the technical aspects of the film are well-done, particularly the costume design and production design. It’s what used to be called a “quality” film, although it’s exactly the kind of film that gives quality films a bad name—all glossy surface with no real reason to exist.
It’s not often that I am tempted to walk out of a movie, but I would certainly have done so with this one were I not obligated as a critic to stick it out to the very end. But there’s no need for you to share my fate, and if you want to see a masterful interpretation of A Christmas Carol, catch the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim, which has the magic that this film sadly lacks. | Sarah Boslaugh