Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas: Clever take on a holiday chesnut

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

This is a droll bit of seasonal mischief.

Les Standiford’s scholarly, quasi-biography of Charles Dickens — 2008’s The Man Who Invented Christmas — seems an unlikely source for a mainstream, holiday-themed film; scripter Susan Coyne deserves credit for an unusual (if hardly original) approach.

As Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, seated) struggles to work his way through the five
"staves" of his new book, he's helped — and hindered — by his imagined personification
of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).
The result proceeds briskly under the capable guidance of British film and TV director Bharat Nalluri, perhaps best known on these shores for 2008’s charming Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Nalluri and Coyne similarly concentrate on whimsical character dynamics here, presenting us with a 31-year-old Dickens — played with agreeably feverish anxiety by Dan Stevens — beset by all manner of troubles.

The film begins with a brief prologue in 1842, with Dickens celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, his stage readings standing-room-only sell-outs in the wake of his wildly popular novels Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Flash-forward a year and change, and Dickens is in dire financial straits after three published flops, including — most particularly — the unloved Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens is at wit’s end: unable to pay the craftsmen appointing his luxurious new home; forever harried by his spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce, as John Dickens); and newly panicked by the news that his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) is expecting their fifth child. Worse yet, he’s months into a ferocious case of writer’s block, the public disdain for his recent output having paralyzed his creative juices.

Best friend and sorta-kinda agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) isn’t much help, his advice limited to little beyond “Well, just write another book.” Dickens’ publishers — Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage) — are similarly useless: actually worse than useless, when they reject the pitch for his next book.

They hardly can be blamed, as it’s a crazed notion: a vaguely defined story about Christmas. Nobody writes about Christmas; nobody cares about Christmas. As the boorish husband of one of Dickens’ aristocratic readers sniffs, Christmas is “just an excuse to pick a man’s pocket once a year.”

If that line sounds familiar, you’ve recognized one key element in Coyne’s script.

The narrative conceit here is that Dickens overhears and jots down names, comments and possible plot contrivances from family, friends and random strangers. (Young Irish housemaid Tara — winningly played by Anna Murphy — helps him come up with the name “Scrooge.”) It’s a delightful notion, particularly for those well-versed in A Christmas Carol’s characters and quotable lines.

But that isn’t the sole gimmick. Once Dickens begins to put pen to paper — banishing his wife, four children and the house staff behind a closed door — he’s able to create and animate his fictional characters only by visualizing, conversing and arguing with their imaginary selves ... at which point Christopher Plummer enters the story, as a rather cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge.

He’s followed, in short order, by Jacob Marley (Donald Sumpter), Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (John Henshaw and Annette Badland) and — most particuarly — Bob Cratchit (Marcus Lamb), his wife (Katie McGuinness) and, among their children, Tiny Tim (Pearse Kearney).

In the manner of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the actors playing these characters also exist as actual folks in Dickens’ life: McGuinness also plays his sister Fanny; Henshaw is the local butcher, and so forth.

The peace of Dickens’ study soon is shattered by squabbling fictional characters. (I’m reminded of the dramatic climax of 1962’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, when fever-wracked Laurence Harvey’s Wilhelm Grimm is confronted by fairytale characters requesting that they be named before he dies.)

And, in an ironic twist that seasoned authors will recognize, Scrooge and the rest of Dickens’ Christmas-themed characters aren’t necessarily willing to behave in the way he’d prefer, as the novella progresses.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ response to his publishers’ disinterest is to finance the book himself: an ill-advised decision, by a man with no money and a hefty overdraft. Factor in plans for the book to have gilt-edged pages bound in red cloth, and illustrations by famed artist John Leech (Simon Callow) ... all ready in time for Christmas. Which is less than two months away.

Can’t be done. Leech can’t work that quickly; the printer can’t work that quickly; Dickens can’t write that quickly.

At least ... he never has before.

Nalluri and Coyne deftly merge this chaotic creative process — with Stevens’ conduct akin to Joseph Fiennes’ similarly obsessed behavior in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love — with narrative glimpses of key scenes, as the story coalesces. These sequences, in turn, are blended with heartbreaking glimpses of Dickens’ grim childhood: particularly the moment when his 12-year-old self (a shattering performance by Ely Solan) was forced to work 10-hour days in a shoe-blacking factory, after having watched his father, mother and younger siblings hauled off to Marshalsea debtors’ prison.

In this respect, then, this film also serves as a quasi-biography: an important reminder, likely overlooked today, that Dickens never missed an opportunity to shine a spotlight on social injustice, and most particularly on the cruel indifference with which his socially privileged readers treated working-class families.

As Kathryn Harrison observed so astutely, in her New York Times review of Standiford’s book, “Dickens intended to make the sufferings of the most vulnerable of the underclass so pungently real to his readers, that they could not continue to ignore their need.” What better time than Christmas, as the backdrop to this authorly objective?

All things considered, this is a lot of baggage for a 104-minute film, particularly one that is determined to convey its various messages with gentle British wit. The interwoven narratives, and Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson’s brisk editing, leave little room for character depth; many of the supporting faces — notably Clark’s oft-neglected Kate Dickens, and McGuinness’ Fanny Dickens — get very little screen time.

It’s a shame to see a talented character actor such as Miriam Margolyes — playing Mrs. Fisk, the Dickens housekeeper — given so little to do.

On the other hand, Coyne works all manner of parallel structure into her script; I was particularly moved by the manner in which Dickens’ unkind exasperation — when dealing with his father — begins to mirror Scrooge’s harsh treatment of Bob Cratchit.

Stevens has a lot of fun with the starring role, and Pryce is equally fine as the foolish, grasping, self-centered John Dickens: a useless man we should despise, but for his obviously kind heart. Forster puts considerable heart into his portrayal of Dickens’ friend Justin, and Callow has some grand incredulous moments as the overwhelmed Leech.

Plummer, in turn, makes a memorable Scrooge: not quite as spitefully cruel as the role traditionally demands, but that’s due to this miser coming to life in fits and starts. It would be fun to see Plummer tackle the role for real and true. We’ve not had a serious version of Dickens’ book since Patrick Stewart’s memorable turn in 1999 — Jim Carrey’s 2009 abomination is best forgotten — and Plummer is the right age.

Just in passing, it’s not entirely true, as the film and Standiford’s book suggest, that Dickens “invented” our modern Christmas. Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” was published in 1823, and in 1840 Queen Victoria and her husband Albert began displaying annual Christmas trees in Windsor Castle: a tradition that quickly caught on here in the States.

That said, Nalluri and Coyne have gifted us with a delectable slice of holiday whimsy ... although, I fear, it’s unlikely to make much of an impact on this side of the pond.

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