The Man Who Invented Christmas is a movie that owes its existence to financial expedience. Even the gorgeous production design turns out to be a cost-saving measure: The press notes for the film reveal that it shot its Victorian-era story on the sets for the now-canceled Showtime series Penny Dreadful between seasons of that series.
The degree to which the film’s existence and (especially) its release date owe themselves to finance would make Ebenezer Scrooge proud. Indeed, releasing a movie about Charles Dickens’s process for writing A Christmas Carol shortly before Christmas will make fiscal sense to just about anybody.
But releasing it the day before Thanksgiving in the US has its own sneaky wisdom, too. This end-of-year release corridor features lots of movies that end up making a ton of money simply because they sit in theaters for months and months and months, while families, tired of forced bonhomie, desperately look for something to do that involves being quiet for a couple of hours.
The Man Who Invented Christmas seems like a strange, Frankenstein-style experiment in grafting together elements of a bunch of beloved holiday classics, atop the skeleton of A Christmas Carol, in a manner that will appeal to every member of the family with almost scientific precision. One could feel defeated by this, or one could feel weirdly heartened. As Scrooge learned, it’s all in your perspective.
So allow me an experiment, the sort of indulgence that should never be allowed but which I am begging you, humble reader, to allow me: a visit from the Ghosts of One, Three, and Five Stars, who will attempt to persuade me of the righteousness of their rating as it should pertain to The Man Who Invented Christmas. (And I’m going to introduce each section as a single “stave,” as in the original Christmas Carol, because I am nothing if not preening and pretentious.)
Stave I: A Visit from The Ghost of One Star
(For my readers’ benefit, the Ghost of One Star is an officially licensed poop emoji from The Emoji Movie riding atop a whirling Sharknado. It speaks with the voice of Adam Sandler’s baby-man characters. As soon as he saw me, he sneered, “A gimmick review? Find another job.”)
“It is almost impossible to find anything right with The Man Who Invented Christmas,” spoke the ghost. “Indeed, the film feels as if it were a three-hour miniseries awkwardly chopped down to 104 minutes. Characters will show up in the background of scenes, never properly introduced or explained, and then they’ll just hang out for the rest of the movie, no rhyme or reason to their use.
“Furthermore, the story is simply too crowded with plot lines and elements that don’t contribute much to the overall tale. There’s a whole subplot with Dickens’s father, John, which is incredibly sweaty in its attempts to justify its existence when, really, it could have been cut entirely from the movie without much effort. It seems to exist solely to justify hiring Jonathan Pryce as Papa Dickens.
“The movie strands the very charming Morfydd Clark in the nothing role of Dickens’s supportive wife, it never finds a way to focus on its most potent elements, and director Bharat Nalluri backlights scenes so that massive beams of light are flying in through windows for no apparent reason in most interior scenes set during daylight. It’s like he saw some of Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s work with Steven Spielberg and said, ‘I can do that. I can do that times 20.’
“This is a bad movie, and you should feel bad for entertaining it as anything other than that, VanDerWerff.”
Stave II: A Visit from the Ghost of Three Stars
(Longtime readers will know the Ghost of Three Stars is thoroughly adequate, though unremarkable, in every way, which is to say she is a DVD of the 2002 Reese Witherspoon vehicle Sweet Home Alabama.)
“What my more curmudgeonly colleague misses,” said the ghost with a smile, “is this film’s potential for great camp enjoyment, especially thanks to its bevy of perfectly fine performances.
“As Dickens, Dan Stevens is thoroughly befuddled at every turn, as though he were a 19th-century sitcom dad, but when he makes the pivot in the third act to full Scrooge — as his writer’s block gets the best of him — he manages the shift to more dramatic material nimbly.
“And as the specter of Scrooge, who collaborates with Dickens to finish the novella in a frantic six-week period, Christopher Plummer is great fun. He finds, like, 15 additional letters in the word ‘Humbug’ you didn’t know were there.
“And, yes, the movie is filled with campy fun. There’s something amusing about the film’s depiction of the midnight walk when Dickens conceived of most of A Christmas Carol’s plot as an endless line of people walking up to him and saying famous lines from the book to him verbatim. Plus, any time the movie’s plot flags, Plummer turns up to snarl at Dickens about how he’s not much of a writer after all, is he?
“Above all, for all its weird turns, The Man Who Invented Christmas depicts a fascinating true story about the creative process, and it gets just enough right to be thoroughly adequate holiday viewing. And in Stevens, it has a Dickens whose sex appeal is surprisingly robust. Put it this way: This Dickens fucks.
“If this were the only movie your grandmother would acquiesce to seeing with you on Black Friday, you wouldn’t be too upset.”
Stave, the Last: The Ghost of Five Stars
(The Ghost of Five Stars is just me after three pots of coffee and a pitcher of eggnog, dressed up as Santa Claus.)
“CHRISTMAS? CHRISTMAS IS MAGICAL!” the ghost bellowed, before firing an air cannon full of tinsel into the sky. “BOOM! THE SPARKLES! LOOK HOW THE MOONLIGHT CAPTURES THEM!”
The ghost calmed down after a lengthy romp through the countryside, shouting all the while about the most wonderful time of the year. After he did, he offered, “If there’s something that makes this movie work very well, it’s the third act. Screenwriter Susan Coyne co-created Slings & Arrows, the Canadian TV drama that’s one of the best depictions of the creative process ever, and a little bit of that rubs off on The Man Who Invented Christmas.
“When Dickens has the creative breakthrough that gives him the end of the novel at the last possible moment, Stevens and Plummer earn that moment, and Coyne’s script gives them something surprisingly rich to dig into.
“Plus, just the depiction of the writing process gives the movie more heft than you’d expect. For having ‘Christmas’ in the title, the movie mercifully holds off on, say, famous Christmas carols playing on the score, and it depicts a time in Christmas history when the holiday was in danger of being run over roughshod by capitalism. (That capitalism ultimately saved the holiday in the name of spending money is an irony the movie could do more with, but ho, ho, ho, I digress.)
“And there are so many other fun touches around the edges of the film that it’s hard to be too mad, like how the Christmas tree — then a new import to English-speaking countries from Germany — is treated as some wild and mad invention, or how the movie features a villainous William Makepeace Thackeray haughtily haunting the club where Dickens hangs out, always ready to remind Charlie of his failures.
“Does the movie deserve five stars? Oh, probably not, but c’mon. It’s Christmas! Spread a little generosity! It’s what Charles Dickens would want!”
The final verdict
The critic put his pen to his mouth and thought, long and hard. Outside, the chill winds of winter were beginning to blow, and he was almost put in mind of long-ago snowscapes and forgotten moments with family. He reached toward the “four stars” button, then checked the forecast for Thanksgiving Day in his Southern California home, only to see it would be in the 90s. “Fuck that,” he muttered, and knocked off half a star. A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.