Monday, July 15, 2024

The Man Who Invented Christmas is Half a Humbug

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Look. I love Christmas. I live for Christmas. On December 26th each year I bookmark next year’s Countdown ’til Christmas calendar and check it every day. The Man Who Invented Christmas should have been right up my alley. I live for holiday movies, and I even marathon the schlocky Hallmark Christmas movies. So for me to be just “whelmed” by this film? Well, that’s saying something.

We start with Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) in America on a book tour for his bestseller Oliver Twist. Boom go confetti cannons and let’s poke gentle fun at how over the top Americans are about everything, great. Then next year we’re back in London, and good old Charlie has had three flops and is now in rather tight financial straights. Which the film does make clear, is of his own doing to an extent. See, Charles is respectable now and needs to live the life of a gentleman. And that is very expensive. But he also has to have the very best, so money is dripping through his pockets like water through a sieve.

We further find out that his wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark) is now pregnant with their fifth child. Charles desperately needs another best-seller, but he’s hit a massive writer’s block. So what is there to do but go with his best friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards) and try to get an advance? Long story short, we see a series of events spark Charles’ imagination, leading him to pitch a new book, a Christmas story. Naturally, his publishers don’t want to fund it, so Charles decides to do so himself.

Drawing from the established and peerage’s attitudes towards the poor, Charles crafts one of his most memorable creations, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). We follow along as unexpected life events, his exiled father and mother showing up out of nowhere, compound his difficulties in finishing the novel in time for Christmas.

On one hand, the film does a splendid job of visualizing a writer’s creative process. While there are broad flourishes, it’s a fun and inventive way of dramatizing the crafting of character and page for a movie-going audience. On the other hand, well.

It feels like Bharat Nalluri can’t make up his mind on what he wants this film to be about. The movie is based on the 2008 novel The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits from Les Standiford, and one can’t help but wonder if maybe the director should have leaned more heavily into creative freedom to embrace the Christmas story. We repeatedly clash with the unfolding Christmas Carol and Charles’ life. We see him react to the economic and classist injustices of his time and see him struggle in his relationship with his father, John (Jonathan Pryce).

Charles and his family were victims themselves of the notorious debtor’s prisons (for the Americans, if you had debts you couldn’t pay, your assets were seized and you and your family were thrown in jail until you could pay them off). When his father was unable to pay back 40 some pounds, the family was split apart with Charles being sent to work for a shoe polish factory where he was starved and bullied. The movie keeps flashing back and forward to Charles’ traumatic past and then tries to blithely play along as he tries to finish his novel.

Conflict inevitably comes when Charles can’t figure out the final chapter and has a deadline looming. With his entire world set to slip away, he lashes out, banishing his parents, firing a maid, and tearing his room apart. As he staggers to the old shoe polish factory, he has a confrontation with Ebenezer about the state of man that somehow resolves itself with Charles remembering something his father said. Suddenly he figures out the ending.

The movie can’t figure out which story it wants to tell. Are we watching a sharp commentary on classism in England in the 1840’s? Are we watching a fun and uplifting Christmas story about a writer crafting a beloved book? We get half of both and the result is a lukewarm bite a fruitcake. We get sharp, dark stabs at the cruelty of man, and then we see characters from the novel following Charles around at random. Why are they there? Ebenezer makes sense, but Fezziwig staying around? Why not Tiny Tim or Bob Cratchit?

And then there’s the matter of resolution. None of it feels earned. Charles behaves abominably and is forgiven with little effort. This film can’t stick to even a basic Hallmark formula of “setup, warm and fuzzy, conflict, earn the resolution.” I wanted to like this movie, truly I did. Instead, I came away with something that feels like half social commentary, half unfinished BBC Christmas special. Still, Christopher Plummer’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge was delightful, and the creation of a book come to life was an inspired take. There are moments of quality in The Man Who Invented Christmas, it’s just a shame you have to dig through everything else to find them.

Image courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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