The year is 1843, and the place is London, where writer Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) returns home from a tour of the United States that has left him cheered that he enjoyed such a warm reception, but also exhausted in that the Americans treated him and his successful works like showbusiness, which is not really how he sees himself. Still, nice to be appreciated, and now he is back he can start writing... what? His past three books have undersold, not having clicked with the British public, and now with his income running low he needs a new hit, but what can he do when he has writer's block and his publishers are politely demanding new material? What with Christmas on its way, too...
Perhaps that opening sequence where Dickens is confounded by the treatment of his books akin to some sort of theatrical show by the Americans was the key to The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fanciful tale of how he came to write A Christmas Carol, the most famous Yuletide story of all time. Indeed, the sense that Dickens' creation has supplanted the Biblical one was most obvious here, where religion was barely mentioned: Christians may object that it was Jesus Christ who invented the celebration, but in this case it referred to the trappings we take for granted as being most Christmassy: a Victorian season, and forget all that boring Bethlehem business, who needed it?
This production came across as having those touristy ideas of Christmas in Victorian times as the Americans like to see it, and indeed the festive project went down best in North America, being widely ignored in its native Britain. One problem was that it was such a familiar account that this effort did not find anything new to bring to the table other than have it be an origin story, much like the template of superhero fiction in what they hoped would be blockbuster form, and that had all sorts of issues as the screenplay tied itself in knots to portray Dickens as a tortured artist akin to the classic incarnation of troubled talents, Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life.
Though Vincent was better served in his biopic than Charles was here, as they amplified various aspects of his biography and invented others to have us ponder, "Aah, who was the real Scrooge - wasn't Dickens the man wrestling with his inner Ebenezer?" To which the answer is no, the author had a genuine drive to promote charity, and all this material we were offered where the mere act of literary creation did not consist of sitting down at a desk and writing out your plot, but raving like a madman and hallucinating your creations berating you for not making things up right did Dickens a real disservice. Stevens did his best, but all that ranting he was ordered to do was tiresome and obscured the actual concerns of the text, which was all about setting aside the worst of humanity to allow decency and love to prevail at Christmas.
Christopher Plummer was the Scrooge in the fantasy sequences, oddly dialling it back for his reading of the character as a sinister, Machiavellian and ice-hearted villain, like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, rendering his about turn to see that heart thawed by humanity's plight difficult to believe, to put it mildly. Elsewhere, the cast was peppered with various venerated British thesps, most associated with Dickens adaptations (yes, Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes were in there), with Jonathan Pryce as the father who was such a devious scoundrel that his screen son's eventual acceptance of him (because the old man is good with kids, supposedly) was an act of less charity and more self-deception. Not to mention that Dickens here was shown to pick and choose inspiration from almost every other character, which made his literary genius more opportunism than hard work in his office off his own ideas. On the plus side, director Bharat Nalluri managed to make this look like a Victorian Christmas card, even if it was a cash-in rather than tapping into resonant emotions - the Christmassy ones you're meant have at the time of the season. Music by Mychael Danna.