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30 Nov 2017

Behind the Classic: Dan Stevens Shines as Charles Dickens in 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

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Dan Stevens in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Dan Stevens in The Man Who Invented Christmas.

In 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, folks were just starting to get into that thing we call Christmas, with stuff like Christmas trees, gift-giving and Cyber Mondays. (An iPad would cost, like, nothing on Cyber Monday in 1843, because nobody had invented the damn thing yet.)

It was the Dickens novel about a miserable miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, who transforms from evil greed monster to kind philanthropist throughout its five chapters, that would help take the celebration of Christmas to a new level—and the boldly titled The Man Who Invented Christmas spins an entertaining and clever take on how and why Dickens got the idea for the story that would change the world.

Coming off a couple of flops after the success of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is doing clumsy book tours to pay the bills. Desperate for a “hit,” he gets an idea for a Christmas book—one in which a greedy man is haunted by ghosts of the past, present and future. The story is meant to be a cautionary yarn about the evils of selfishness, and perhaps less about the joys of Christmas and redemption. As Dickens gets further into his book, and his own psyche, the themes change toward hope, and his classic is born.

Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a screenplay by Susan Coyne (based on the book by Les Standiford), gets the unique opportunity to tell the making of A Christmas Carol while, in some ways, making yet another version of the famed story itself. The film features Dickens conferring with the fictional characters in his story as he creates them, so we get an Ebenezer Scrooge, this time played by the great Christopher Plummer. It’s no surprise that Plummer is perfect for the role. Essentially playing a voice in Dickens’ head, Plummer gets the chance to offer up his own spin on the great line, “Bah, humbug!” and he looks absolutely smashing in that sleepwear.

While he doesn’t get much screen time (this is, after all, mostly a biographical depiction of Dickens), Plummer instantly joins the League of Great Scrooges. He’s right up there with Alastair Sim, Mr. Magoo and Henry Winkler. (OK, Winkler played someone named Benedict Slade in An American Christmas Carol, but Slade was a thinly veiled Scrooge. Actually, I liked that movie, but it would’ve been better had Winkler portrayed Scrooge as his alter ego, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, rather than going the old-cranky-guy route. Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham could’ve been Jacob Marley. OK, I watched too much damned Happy Days when I was a kid.)

Stevens, having a big year with this and his turn in Beauty and the Beast, portrays Dickens as a bit of an eccentric nut. As Dickens concocts the story in his writing room, he throws tantrums and has imaginary conversations with imaginary people. Stevens finds some humor in this, but he doesn’t stay away from the notion that Charles perhaps needed a long metal vacation.

A touching subplot has Dickens dealing with major daddy issues as his penniless father (Jonathan Pryce) comes to town and causes trouble by trying to sell his son’s autograph and unleashing a pet raven in the household. Through flashbacks, we see that Charles’ adoration for his good-natured but scheming father led to a long stretch of sadness when his father went to jail, and he went to an orphanage (themes that obviously played out in other Dickens stories). The film suggests that Dickens’ forgiveness toward his father led to the redemptive turn in A Christmas Carol. I don’t know if that’s based on fact, but I liked it in the movie.

The film’s production values, which look a little drab, keeps it from being great, but the performances help put it over the top.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a different kind of holiday movie. It’s not going to rank up there with Rudolph or Frosty, but for those of you looking for a deeper telling of a great fable, it won’t disappoint.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

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