Biography takes some fanciful turns in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” an engaging look at Charles Dickens and the turbulent story behind the creation of perhaps his best-loved book, “A Christmas Carol.”
The movie begins in 1843, and Charles Dickens (played by “Beauty and the Beast” star Dan Stevens) is in a bit of a creative rut. After the success of “Oliver Twist” and a grand tour of the United States, Dickens has three flops in a row and is feeling the pressure to produce another hit.
Much of Dickens’ worry is financial. He’s remodeling his London house; his wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), is going to have another baby; and Dickens worries about mounting debt. The unexpected arrival of his father (Jonathan Pryce), a cheery raconteur and low-level con artist who sometimes sells his son’s autograph to collectors, increases Dickens’ stress.
In October, Dickens tells his publishers he has an idea for a new book: a Christmas story about a miserly man who is visited by dark spirits on Christmas Eve. The publishers are dubious that Dickens can finish the book and get it published in time for Christmas — and, they tell Dickens, people barely celebrate that holiday anymore. Dickens takes the challenge and vows to publish the book on his own if necessary.
There’s only one problem with Dickens’ plan, which he confides to his friend and agent, John Forster (Justin Edwards): All he has is the idea, and he still has to write the thing. So Dickens locks himself away in his study, convinced that once he gets the main character figured out, the rest will follow. When he thinks up the name Ebenezer Scrooge, the character himself (Christopher Plummer) appears in his study, saying, “Bah, humbug!”
The clever conceit that screenwriter Susan Coyne (who wrote last year’s “Anne of Green Gables” reboot) displays is the way Dickens would collect material from the world around him, then channel it into his books. Conversations with strangers, walks through cemeteries, even the stories his household’s new Irish nanny, Tara (Anna Murphy), tells his children — all of it ends up recycled into his characters, who come to life in his study to inspire or taunt him.
It’s surprising that Plummer hasn’t played Scrooge before, because he conveys the old miser’s sour dismissal of all things Christmas — and his joyful rediscovery of the same — with a sharp wit and a merry twinkle in his eye. His scenes with Stevens, imaginatively staged by director Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”), are dynamic imaginings of the creative process, capturing the back-and-forth between an artist and the character who takes over his brain.
The movie argues in its closing title cards that “A Christmas Carol” changed the way the English-speaking world celebrated Christmas — but that’s a tidbit that gets lost in Dickens’ creative and family tensions. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” tells an engaging story of Dickens’ life, but not necessarily the one the title promises.
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The Man Who Invented Christmas
An engaging holiday movie digs into Charles Dickens’ personal life and the creative struggles of writing “A Christmas Carol.”
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Wednesday, Nov. 22.
Rating • PG for thematic elements and some mild language.
Running time • 104 minutes.