Yet another Christmas Carol
The Man Who Invented Christmas begs a question. Why? Why do we need yet another version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? After the Muppets, Bill Murray and all the more traditional adaptations, what’s left? If you want an answer, it’s not in the film.
It does, however, come with a touch of topicality that nobody could have foreseen. Christopher Plummer stars as Scrooge and, as we all know, he’s ever so slightly busy at the moment on a short notice gig for Ridley Scott. There’s an, admittedly unintentional, reference to it which will prompt more than a few knowing smiles. Dickens (Dan Stevens) is trying to sell the idea for the book to his publishers and they like they idea, but have one concern. “We couldn’t possibly get it printed and distributed – in six weeks!” Ring any bells?
Back to the movie, which doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts with that cumbersome title. After the success of Oliver Twist, and a subsequent tour of America, Dickens’ career is on the slide: his past three books have flopped with the domestic audience and now he’s hit a writer’s block, struggling for inspiration. And the film rather takes its cue from him.
The story starts as it means to go on, with Dickens gradually getting that much-needed inspiration from people he meets and the things they say. The curmudgeonly businessman (Bill Paterson) who extols the virtues of workhouses: his publisher who begrudges giving his clerk a day’s paid holiday on Christmas Day: his good natured nephew who suffers from ill health. The one who really haunts him is a granite faced old man he meets at a graveyard and who utters the immortal line “humbug!” That really sets him off, although he struggles to come up with the right name. “Get the name right and the character will appear …..” he tells himself. You know exactly what comes next.
So, as he creates what turns out to be his next best seller, Dickens is followed around in his imagination by Scrooge (Plummer, enjoying himself). It is, however, much the same story as A Christmas Carol, except that it’s Dickens who’s introduced to the ghosts. The moral remains untouched and, just to stay true to the book, Scrooge undergoes a transformation, although there’s no sign of him buying the best goose at the butcher’s on Christmas morning.
The relationship between Dickens and Scrooge works well enough, although Plummer makes Dan Stevens look like a new – and sometimes OTT – boy to the screen. Scrooge acts as an ironic commentator to what’s happening to his creator and a clutch of British character actors – Jonathan Pryce as Dickens’ father, Simon Callow as an illustrator, Miriam Margolyes as the author’s housekeeper, Ian McNeice as his publisher – give the film some colour and much-needed charm. But director Bharat Nalluri takes things a step too far when he bolts on a group of other characters from the book to follow the author around. They don’t add anything, have precious little to say and just make their scenes look overcrowded.
It all boils down to another unremarkable variation on A Christmas Carol theme, one that settles into repetition and predictability, so you find yourself waiting for the next familiar phrase or name. If you’re looking for a piece of traditional Christmas entertainment, that’s what you’ll get. Except that a quick look at any list of seasonal movies will point you in the direction of something much better.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is released in cinemas on Friday, 1 December.