I approached The Man Who Invented Christmas with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. I’ve long held a soft spot in my heart for he pioneering blend of holiday cheer and horror that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol offers. And I utterly adore director Bharat Nalluri’s underseen and undersung Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, a star-studded romp about romance, classism, and female friendship. But then there was that trailer, which looked less Pettigrew-styled witty and whimsical and more thunkingly sentimental and cloddishly goofy. And so I braced myself, hoping for the best, but fearing mawkishness and mediocrity.
Thankfully, Nalluri has delivered a delightful and touching holiday film just when we need it most.
Adapted from Les Stanford’s book, The Man Who Invented Christmas takes some of the truth of Dickens’ life and generously mixes in element of his most famous story to create a rollicking tale about family and ambition. Dan Stevens stars as Dickens, who is at a downturn in his career. Oliver Twist was a smash hit, making him like a literary rock star! But that was 18 months and three flops ago. Now, in 1843 London, he’s nearly broke and begging publishers to give him one last shot. Today, it’s easy to assume a Christmas story was a nakedly mercenary move meant to play on holiday fervor. But as the title suggests, Christmas was not then the widely celebrated secular holiday it has become. So Dickens’ pitch was downright odd, forcing him to explain to financiers, illustrators, and his own family why in the world he’d tell a ghost story set during a “minor holiday.”
A Christmas Carol is painted not as a cashgrab, but as a bold bit of activism, intended to hold up the dignity of the marginalized, while scorning the greed and entitlement of the privileged. Or as Dickens declares in a heated scene, “Christmas is—or ought to be—the one time of year when men and women open their shut up hearts and and think of the people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures all together!”
In an inventive and inviting twist, A Christmas Carol’s characters spring to life in Dickens’s study. Scrooge (a scowling yet spunky Christopher Plummer) stalks about spitting familiar invectives, while Marley rattles his chains and the Fezziwigs giddily dance a jig. Some of these fantastical figures feature faces plucked from Dickens’ run-ins with wizened waiters and mirthful maids, along with names and other inspirations. Here a sickly child hoisted upon his father’s shoulders. There an Irish servant girl excitedly explaining Christmas is a time where the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. Here a lonely funeral; there an old geezer spitting, “humbug.” These bits may be predictable in the way of biopics about the creation of iconic art, but it’s nonetheless deeply, unapologetically charming.
There’s an element of the ticking clock as the days to Christmas count down, threatening the book’s relevance and Dickens’s financial future. But where things get really interesting is when Scrooge begins to badger Dickens not only to finish the damned book, but to see the Scrooge in himself. The Man Who Invented Christmas shows us two dueling sides of Dickens. In the first, he is warm and generous, giving money to whoever asks, lending literature to his bookworm of a servant girl, and offering silly nicknames and voices to play with his small fleet of children. But when it comes to his work, he is miserly with his time, bellowing at any interruption, making himself a mercurial tyrant. And when it comes to his father (a scampish Jonathan Pryce), a smiling rascal who sifts through the family trash for mementos to sell to his famous son’s fans, Dickens has only resentment and fury. And so, rather than step us through the signature steps of Scrooge’s change of heart, Scrooge—with the help of some familiar spirits—guides his creator through a pivotal moment of realization and growth. It’s poignant and perfect for Christmas, when family togetherness and family frustration are an inevitable and unenviable combination.
But beyond all this, The Man Who Invented Christmas is at times a joyful and almost embarrassingly authentic portrayal of being a writer. Watching Dickens lurch around his study, making strange sounds as he scrounges for the perfect name for his anti-hero, I winced and smiled in recognition. Searching for that right word when you’re writing can lead to behavior that’d look lunatic from the outside, and Stevens embraces this without ego, happily playing the fool. When Dickens finally pronounces “Scrooge” with wide eyes and a smug smile, my heart leapt—even as the movie gets gleefully silly as a wind blows and the miserly old Scrooge appears behind him, stern and scowling. It’s a victory, and one that deepens as Dickens scribbles furiously while a stern Scrooge’s nasty gnarl of a grimace cracks to reveal a tight but proud grin. Here is the rush of when you know you’re onto something great.
All told, the story comes to life in a way at once familiar and fresh. The creation narrative plays as a clever framing that presents the goods of ghosts, gravitas, and redemption from A Christmas Carol, while giving unique opportunities for tweaks on the characters (like Scrooge begrudging Marley his ever-enigmatic prose), and folding in how this story shaped its audience and even its author. You’ll get to mouth along with many of those unforgettable lines about gravy and graves, workhouses and pudding. But also, we’re gifted an emotionally intelligent tale about work/life balance that dares to consider a side of Dickens rarely imagined. Stevens, spinning from playful to panicked to belligerent, dances divinely within this role. Plummer is perfection as Scrooge the notorious scoundrel as well as Scrooge, the unexpected life coach. And all of this, Nalluri stirs together into a heartwarming holiday confection that is sweet and satisfying.