PLOT Just weeks before Christmas of 1843, Charles Dickens begins writing what would become one of his best-known books.
CAST Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Miles Jupp
RATED PG (mildly macabre moments)
BOTTOM LINE An engaging account of the birth of a literary classic.
Initially, it didn’t sound like a bestseller: A ghost story set during Christmas? What bothered Charles Dickens’ publisher wasn’t the ghoulish theme, but the minor relevance of the holiday. “Does anyone really celebrate it anymore?” he asked.
That, at least, is how the story goes in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” in which Dickens dashes off a slim potboiler called “A Christmas Carol” that would become his most famous book. The movie’s title may be more hyperbole than gospel truth, but most viewers will be happy to think of Dickens’ lovely little novella as the reason we now celebrate Christmas as a time when — as Scrooge’s Nephew Fred puts it — “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
After the dark, brutal version of Dickens played by Ralph Fiennes in “The Invisible Woman,” it’s nice to see Dan Stevens as a lively, affable, slightly volatile version of the author. Haunted by his recent flops (has anyone read “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit”?) and needled by his frenemy William Makepeace Thackeray (a very funny Miles Jupp), Dickens shuts himself in his office to turn a germ of an idea into book.
In this telling, Dickens’ characters appear to him as living, talking beings, few more talkative than Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Initially, Scrooge plays his grouchy role as expected, but — in a psychological twist — he slowly becomes a mirror for the author, goading Dickens into facing his own shameful past as a child laborer. Dickens’ charming wastrel of a father, John, is played by a wry and rather moving Jonathan Pryce.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” can feel somewhat stagy; much of it is confined to Dickens’ study, and the London streets appear to be studio sets (there are few if any shots of sky in this film). At the same time, the whole affair does have a cozy, fireside feel thanks to director Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”), while Susan Coyne’s screenplay mixes lively dialogue with rich detail taken from Les Standiford’s nonfiction book. Even in its cornier moments, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is an irresistible holiday treat.