Dan Stevens plays Charles Dickens, struggling through writer's block to finish everyone's favorite holiday story
Suddenly Christopher Plummer is the toast of the holiday season. Not only will the veteran actor be replacing the scandal-plagued Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, he’s also here playing Christmas icon Ebenezer Scrooge … albeit in a slightly different version. Bharat Nalluri’s new film approaches the classic story of A Christmas Carol from a meta-textual angle, telling the story of how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) came up with the iconic holiday tale. We get a look at Dickens’ writing process, in which he conjures up characters like Plummer’s Scrooge and talks with them to figure out how they tick (and, therefore, how to write his story).
As a result, The Man Who Invented Christmas is mostly a story about overcoming writer’s block. That sounds boring, and it surely would be unbearable if anyone but Stevens was in the role. Stevens is a great physical actor who already proved (on FX’s Legion) he’s adept at manifesting mental problems in his characters’ memorable body language. Though he’s traded psychedelic visions and eccentric mutants for a cacophony of Christmas characters, Stevens once again plays a man plagued by visions and ghosts. Though rather than taking over his mind, these ones just mock him for struggling to finish his book on time. Dickens’ editors balk at the idea of the three Christmas spirits when he first proposes it, but you can see how they must have seemed like the most natural thing in the world to him.
There are not very many surprises in this movie, since most of us know A Christmas Carol by heart. True to its title, though, The Man Who Invented Christmas does give viewers a look at how Dickens’ book changed perceptions of the winter holiday. Every time he pitches it to someone, they express shock that he would even bother writing about Christmas at all. There’s hardly a Christmas tree to be seen. The film’s argument is that Dickens’ wonderful story had the same effect on the general populace as it does on Scrooge himself, inspiring people to be more generous and forgiving at Yuletide. Perhaps some of its power comes from its parallels with Dickens’ own life story; it was hard for him to complete when he still had unresolved issues with his profligate father (Jonathan Pryce). Again, we know the beats by heart, but there’s a reason A Christmas Carol has been told every which way from Muppets to Disney. You can’t help getting swept up in it, even if you’ve heard it all before. B-