Movies that center around writers tend to vary. The process of writing is so inherently introspective that trying to make that narratively interesting can be tricky. There are exceptions, of course. There are great movies, like Spike Jonze‘s “Adaptation,” that found ingenious, heartbreaking ways to depict what it means to be a writer without overdoing the showmanship. There are films, like “Barton Fink” and “The Shining,” that use different genres and dark comedy to translate the madness that comes in trying to jot down your thoughts. And there are also pictures like “American Splendor” and “Capote” which take a gentler, more sympathetic approach to real-life writers, showcasing their strengths and weaknesses, neurotic tendencies and deep vulnerabilities. Bharat Nalluri‘s sweet-natured, good-hearted Charles Dickens biopic “The Man Who Invented Christmas” tries in earnest to capture that latter approach, hoping to tap into high virtues and crippling flaws of one of the most acclaimed and well-known authors of all-time, following Dickens as writes his celebrated seasonal masterpiece “A Christmas Carol.” The final results, however, are mixed.
Played with feverish gusto by Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” “Legion“), Dickens is portrayed here as a kind-hearted, brilliant, if brash and eccentric author who finds his literary career in a tailspin. After three consecutive flops, Dickens is in dire need of a hit, yet he continues to be a giving soul, but that generosity comes at a price. Dickens tries to provide a life of luxury for his wife (Morfydd Clark) and children, but the money is growing thin and Dickens is left without ideas for another novel.
But in the midst of getting reacquainted with his difficult father (Jonathan Pryce), Dickens finds himself visited by a variety of different imagined characters, including one who’ll eventually be named Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Suddenly, Charles is stricken by inspiration! He’ll make a Christmas novel, one that’ll capitalize on the impending holiday. But with only a mere couple months until the day, Dickens works himself into a frenzy to try to complete the blooming novel in time. And when his publishers decide Christmas isn’t worth writing about (at this time in London’s history, Christmas wasn’t nearly as celebrated as it is today), Dickens decides to publish the novel himself, further sacrificing his waning bank account.
But in the midst of writing the book, Dickens is, of course, retaught the values of family, kindness, and cheer. And that means reconnecting with his dad, the source of both benevolence and deep-seated resentment. You can start to see how Dickens’ novel is meant to parallel his actual life events, at least as they are portrayed in this film. And with that, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” serves as both a new take on the classic story and a glimpse behind-the-scenes into what made it so special in the first place.
It’s a rich idea, brought to life with warm, occasional cleverness and good cheer by screenwriter Susan Coyne. However, Nalluri’s unremarkable direction never delivers the emotional punch the material deserves. The film more closely resembles the emotional superficiality of a Hallmark Original Production than something you’d expect from a cast of this caliber. But with that said, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” benefits from the dependable ensemble.
Everyone in the cast approaches the material with seasonal warmth, while also recognizing how hard it can be to forget the troubles which burden your family, even during the most festive time of the year. It’s a film that prides itself on melodramatic tendencies, but through its gentle goodness, it does win some of your affections. Its most intriguing ideas are watered down by its family-friendly execution, and therefore Naullari never earns the full emotional depth needed to make it a great film about a great writer, similar to a number of movies mentioned above. But “The Man Who Invented Christmas” also isn’t completely marred by the all-around phoniness of the aforementioned Hallmark features, as everything is played with a great amount of sincerity.
Too mediocre to become a new classic, it’s easy to be dismissive of the film’s cheap pleasures, but through its good heart and giving spirit, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” does, in part, capture what makes the holiday season such a joyous time. It’s not the best movie you’ll get under your stocking, but when it comes to spreading spreading Christmas cheer, the film gradually wins you over. [B-]