There is a marvelous theatricality that flourishes throughout Bharat Nalluri's The Man Who Invented Christmas, a Bleecker Street release opening in theaters nationwide this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Lensed beautifully by Ben Smithard, The Man Who Invented Christmas often reminded me of the cherished memories I carry with me of sitting in the auditorium of the nearby Indiana Repertory Theatre watching one of their grandest holiday traditions, the always welcome holiday classic A Christmas Carol.
Alas, The Man Who Invented Christmas is not, in fact, a stage production but a cinematic creation and without the electricity created by live actors with a live audience it's a film that struggles to find anything resembling a spark or sense of magic.
The film stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as Charles Dickens, who is as we meet him a struggling author whose most recent books have largely bombed leaving his status as the era's most popular author in question.
He is desperate.
It doesn't help that his father (Jonathan Pryce, Game of Thrones) is back home in London concocting a myriad of lame-brained ideas, nor is it particularly helpful that his rather harrowing childhood is an ever present shadow reminding him what may very well await if he is unable to come up with another winning story.
Fortunately for him, he comes across the idea for what will become his most popular story, A Christmas Carol, a story that his publisher doubts and is hesitant to support. Convinced that this is the story that will change his fate, Dickens decides to risk everything to release the book himself. Before any Dickens purists start attacking, yes I know the story is actually called A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-story of Christmas.
Of course, you know the rest of the story.
Based upon a book by Les Standiford and penned by Susan Coyne, The Man Who Invented Christmas never quite casts the spell one rightfully expects from a film called The Man Who Invented Christmas, a title far too magical for what unfolds here and, I'd dare say, a title more befitting one of the season's Hallmark movie specials. Stevens, a talented actor, lacks the charisma here that would really sell what is already a rather paper thin story.
Christopher Plummer, as the inspiration for Dickens' story, is the film's shining star and the primary reason the film's worthy of at least a modest, if unenthusiastic, recommendation. The primary problem with The Man Who Invented Christmas is that it can't decide what it wants to be about, simultaneously tackling A Christmas Carol threads with a not particularly effective storyline about Dickens' unresolved issues around his father's journey into debtor's prison and his own subsequent childhood struggles. There's a connection to be had here, but Coyne's script makes it unconvincingly and Stevens lacks the range to make it all work anyway.
The Man Who Invented Christmas isn't a bad film, though it's one of those films that feels out of place amidst the sea of awards season screeners crossing my desk this time of year. A beautiful film to behold with an attractive performance by Plummer, The Man Who Invented Christmas is an awful like that sweater you get from your grandparents at Christmas - you know they mean well, but you also know you're never gonna' wear it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic