This entertaining account of how Charles Dickens brought A Christmas Carol to life is as warming as a glass of mulled wine. A top-notch British cast make the familiar festive story go with a swing and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) plays ‘the Shakespeare of the novel’ with energetic charm.
It’s a surprise to see Dickens portrayed as a dashing young man with matinee idol blue eyes, but in real life he didn’t always look like a stern Airedale terrier. An early portrait shows a foppish dandy sporting a raffish cravat, and this is the look that Stevens goes for. As the film starts, the author is caught up in the noisy adulation of his sensational 1842 American reading tour, and we are reminded that Dickens was the first literary rock star.
Back in London a year later, the comedown is sobering. Dickens has writer’s block. After three flops in a row his publishers need another bestseller. But he is haunted by ghosts of Christmas past: his father being arrested and carted off to debtor’s prison; the horrors of working at the age of 12 in Warrens Blacking factory. ‘Debt is an ogre,’ he tells his wife Kate, ‘if you’re not careful, it will eat you up.’ With a fifth child on the way (‘not another little stranger!’), the pressure is on.
Director Bharat Nalluri shows Dickens wrestling with his own dark side as he accumulates the material that will become A Christmas Carol. The author’s prodigious energy is what has made him great, but it also makes him difficult to live with. ‘Slow down, Charles,’ his sensible best friend John Forster (the excellent Justin Edwards) tells him, ‘you move at railway speed.’
What makes The Man Who Invented Christmas worth watching are the nicely-judged performances from old-timers such as Christopher Plummer (Scrooge), Jonathan Pryce (Dickens’ dad) and Donald Sumpter (Jacob Marley), as well as relative newcomers Stevens and Edwards. In the fictional world of Dickens’ grotesques and larger-than-life characters, they are remarkably understated. As Mrs. Fisk, the usually reliably Dickensian Miriam Margolyes is strangely muted.
This ‘film within a film’ requires a delicate balancing act and, to his credit, Nalluri swerves both the excesses of heritage or realist adaptations. The screenplay is adapted from the 2007 book by Les Standiford, a specialist in historical narrative non-fiction. The Man Who Invented Christmas sometimes feels a bit small screen but the film is admirably old-fashioned in its charm and, except for one London vista, avoids CGI altogether, which means that we concentrate on the human drama. When visual delights come our way, they are those produced by magic lantern, Punch and Judy show, or Pollock’s Theatre.
Did Dickens really invent Christmas? Before the publication of A Christmas Carol Christmas as we know it today was a ‘minor holiday’, one which his publishers doubted many people celebrated anymore, forcing Dickens to self-publish his classic story. There certainly wasn’t a market for Christmas books before 1843, and the film shows the Dickens household taking delivery of their first Tannenbaum tree, as made fashionable by Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert.
Perhaps the greatest impact A Christmas Carol had was on donations to charity, which soared after it was published. ‘In the season of hope,’ wrote its author, ‘we will shut out nothing from our firesides, and everyone will be welcome.’