Dearie me, here we are again at the end of another year, with everything that it entails: the adverts start a little bit earlier every year, the sentimentality becomes a little bit more glutinous, the doublethink just a little more bemusing. (Yeah, I should say: this is probably going to get extremely cynical, even by the normal standards of this column. What can I say? So it goes.)
But, you know, let's do something a bit different and try a Christmas movie for a change. I mean, it's not as if there aren't any Christmas films that I have time for: I like It's A Wonderful Life (well, who doesn't?). I like Die Hard. I like Brazil. So, there's every chance that I could end up liking this new film, always assuming it includes one or other of an attempted suicide, blood-sodden gun battles, or delusional insanity as a happy ending. So here's hoping.
Well, anyway, the new film is Bharat Nalluri's The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fictionalised account of a period in the life of Charles Dickens (you know, I'm starting to suspect those blood-sodden gun battles may not appear). Dan Stevens plays Dickens himself, who at the start of the film is making his first tour of the USA, where he is greatly feted. Quite what this sequence is doing here I have no idea, for it contributes nothing to the story; I imagine it is present only to try and sell the movie to America.
Things get underway in earnest some time later, towards the back end of 1843. Dickens finds himself financially embarrassed and in need of a hit, after a number of flops in a row. So he resolves to write a book for the Christmas market which will solve all his problems. But whatever will he write about? Well, there's a doddery old waiter at the Garrick Club called Marley, he sees a grim-faced old man muttering 'humbug' at a funeral, he overhears his new maid telling the younger Dickenslings a fairy story about ghosts, and so on.
Still, it's a tough old gig writing a novel in only about six weeks (apparently – although some of us do manage it every November), and things get a bit fraught between Dickens and his family, especially his feckless old dad (Jonathan Pryce) with whom he has Issues. (Hey! Jonathan Pryce was in Brazil, that's a good sign.) There is also the problem that Dickens can't come up with a happy ending – is Tiny Tim marked for death???
Hum, well. The Man Who Invented Christmas is clearly a film which has something to say about the Real Meaning of Christmas. Well, let me just stop you there, The Man Who Invented Christmas, not least because (need it even be said?) Charles Dickens did not actually invent Christmas, Christmas not being that kind of discrete, specific concept, but instead a syncretised religious and cultural event which has existed in various forms and under different names for thousands of years, with roots in traditions as widely-flung as Egyptian and Norse mythology. (Glad we got that sorted out.) The film suggests the Real Meaning of Christmas is something to do with our better selves and redemption and kindness and generosity and all that sort of thing. My experience is that this is what many people like to to tell themselves Christmas is all about, before surrendering to the warm glow of self-satisfaction this idea gives them and spending several hundred pounds on a giant TV, which they proceed to fall asleep in front of after consuming enough alcohol to power a small outboard motor. Personally, even if I had invented Christmas, I would not necessarily rush to take the credit for it.
You know what, I'm starting to think I'm not the best person to give this film an objective review. Never mind, let's press on. The basic idea of this film is not that different from Shakespeare in Love, although in this case Dickens in Debt would obviously be a better title. There's a lot of slightly strained humour as we see Dickens pacing about his study, trying to think of a name for his protagonist, muttering things like 'Scrunge? Scrank?' It is a fairly well-documented phenomenon that, while films require good writing, films primarily about the act of writing are rarely good. This film's crack at the problem of how to make writing a novel cinematically interesting is to have the various characters from A Christmas Carol materialise and talk to Dickens.
This does at least enable what's indisputably the best thing in the movie, which is the appearance of Christopher Plummer as Scrooge. (Plummer has been having a bit of a Christopher Lee-like Indian Summer in his career for some years now.) You really want to see Plummer play Scrooge properly, and not engage in the underpowered 'comic' banter with Stevens that he is assigned here. There is, I suppose, something mildly amusing about the idea of Charles Dickens being followed around and annoyed by the cast of one of his novels, but it's not exactly fall-off-your-seat funny, and it's hardly a convincing depiction of the creative process.
In fact, this is one of those comedy dramas which isn't that funny and isn't especially dramatic, either – they have a stab at some kind of psychological insight, by suggesting that Dickens can't bear to see Scrooge redeemed until the author has himself worked through his various daddy issues, but it feels a little bit contrived. (One wonders what Simon Callow, a noted Dickens authority who appears in a supporting role, made of the script.) Certainly there is little sense of any real darkness or complexity to the Dickens of this film.
The thing about a really good Christmas movie is that it does work hard to earn the happy-feel-good conclusion by going to somewhere genuinely dark and troubled on the way – there's a reason for that attempted suicide in It's A Wonderful Life, after all. This one doesn't – it's just slightly insipid all the way through, dramatically inert, almost aggressively bland.
You can almost imagine the thought process that led to this movie being made – no-one does costume drama quite like the British film industry, and those are a good safe bet at this time of year. But, as there have been nearly thirty movie or TV versions of A Christmas Carol already, including ones where Scrooge has been played by a skunk, a smurf, and Michael Caine, obviously the edict was to do something different. This is a competent film in its own way, I suppose, but I just came away wishing they'd done a full-on adaptation of the book, so Plummer could have played Scrooge properly. As it is, this is soft in the middle and runny round the edges, and generally about as appetising as that sounds.