Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of the best Christmas stories ever told.
There have been so many adaptations–from muppets to the 1951, Scrooge, starring Alistair Sim as the titular curmudgeon – that’s it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone who doesn’t know the story. Perhaps that’s why the new Bharat Nalluri-directed film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, takes a different approach. Scrooge and the ghosts who haunt him still appear, but they take the form of living manifestations of Dickens’s imagination as he writes the story. And while the concept is certainly clever and Dan Stevens is a lively and highly-watchable Dickens, by the end of it, you still kind of wish it were a straight-forward adaptation.
Despite its pedigree, the film can’t quite avoid a degree of Lifetime movie-ness. There’s the cloying score that begs you to have fun. There are the whimsical fantasy sequences, there’s even Stevens’s performance. However, those same aspects also make the film worth watching. While knowing that Dickens will eventually beat the odds and finish the book in six weeks removes the story’s dramatic tension, it also makes every step toward the finished story more exciting. When he thrills at meeting a bumbling old man named “Marley” we know he’ll eventually give the name to Scrooge’s dead business partner. When he watches his solicitor rattle the chains on his office safe, we know they’ll become part of Marley’s appearance too.
Though those moments can give too obvious a wink at the audience, they’re saved by the ways the people who inspire Dickens are then played by those same actors when they’re integrated into the story. Though all the performances are enjoyable, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge is the standout. He takes the bitchiness that made him so memorable in The Sound of Music and makes it caustic here. He’s one of the few actors in the film who can pull focus from Stevens and he deftly handles playing both the ur-Scrooge and the embodiment of Dickens’s own wort tendencies.
Unfortunately, Dickens’s battle against his Scrooge-y side and the way the film copies A Christmas Carol’s plotting, is also the weakest thing about it. The original story is an effective narrative and it’s hard to blame Susan Coyne from taking so much from it, but the beats are too familiar and grafting them onto Dickens’s life doesn’t fit with the sillier tone of the scenes about his writing process.
To some degree, Stevens’s performance bears out that uneasy combination of tones. Most of the time, his Dickens is manic and jovial, a carefree child trapped in the body of a jaded man. However, his mood swings to emo and brooding so severely whenever he interacts with his father, played by Jonathan Price, that you almost wonder if he’s bipolar—which is either intentional or residue from Stevens’s time on Legion. It feels like cheap melodrama and puts a damper on what is otherwise a light and fun family film.
Regardless of any tonal issues, director Bharat Nalluri was created a pretty enjoyable film with The Man Who Invented Christmas. His version of 19th century England is vibrant and bustling, but it’s also a little too glossy. There’s an artificiality to both the film’s look and it’s storytelling that make it fun to watch, but also keep it from being quite as effective as the story it copies. There are probably better movies about the creative process, but not many have more fun. Despite everything, the film is a perfectly acceptable film to watch with your family this holiday season. Just don’t expect it to become something you watch every year.