Getting a Christmas movie right might be one of the hardest jobs in film. Christmas being, well, Christmas, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to pack the story with the kind of sappy sentimentality that tends to be the death of narrative. It’s understandable, sure; we all like to think (pretend?) that Christmas is magic, and studios like to prod our nostalgia tinted memories with films designed to evoke the feeling of that most wonderful time of the year.
That’s a hard ask. The window for getting it right is little more than a crack, and year after year films thud against the wall without making it through. The key, I think, is to remember that the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all. Even A Christmas Story is less a story about Christmas than it is a coming of age tale that happens to be set at Christmas. If you look at the other classics of the season, that pattern holds up.
It’s A Wonderful Life captures the magic of Christmas via a drama about suicide; Christmas Vacation works because it’s about the stress of the holidays and the weirdness of family; Home Alone plays because it explores how family is the centerpiece of the holidays. Each of the films captures the true spirit of Christmas specifically because they’re about something besides Christmas. Getting that ideal right is difficult.
Which brings us to The Man Who Invented Christmas. Easily one of the best Christmas movies to be released in years, the film works because it’s not about Christmas so much as it’s about Christmasy things, and there is perhaps nothing more Christmasy than A Christmas Carol.
We need another adaptation of A Christmas Carol like we need a punch in the nose, but thankfully The Man Who Invented Christmas isn’t that. Not exactly, anyway. It’s about Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) as he attempts to write his famed Christmas parable (which inspired much of how we celebrate Christmas to this day). The result is one of the wittiest and most delightful holiday films to hit the scene in some time, and feels destined to become a new holiday classic.
Following a trio of commercial bombs, Dickens is becoming increasingly worried over the financial solvency of his family. Terrified by his youthful experiences in the workhouses following his father’s (Jonathon Pryce) imprisonment for debt, he’s desperate for a new hit to put him back on top. Slowly, the events in his life begin to coalesce into the idea for A Christmas Carol. With only six weeks to write the book to be released in time for the holiday, Dickens embarks on a manic writing frenzy, led by his imagination which takes the form of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).
Much of the film plays out like an experimental take on A Christmas Carol performed by a bizarre repertory theater company. Using it as a framework to tell Dickens’s life story works surprisingly well, as it allows the film to explore the writer’s social justice ideals as well as his family life. Lit-nerds will delight in all the subtle and not-so-subtle Easter eggs peppered throughout the film (there are a few hilarious interactions between Dickens and his literary rival William Thackeray that will tickle the fancy of English majors everywhere) and the film relishes in its Victorian setting.
Particularly enjoyable are the interactions between Dickens and his literary creations. This device is risky, and it could have fell flat on its face. Instead, Susan Coyne’s script (which was based on the book by Les Standiford) manages to capture all that is beloved about A Christmas Carol and use that as a framework to explore that insanity that is the creative process. The script is alternately hilarious and moving, and Plummer’s Scrooge, unconventional though it may be, stands as one of the best portrayal of Dickens’s tragic miser.
Though not, strictly speaking, a Christmas film, The Man Who Invented Christmas ends up embodying the Christmas spirit by playing in the thematic sandbox that makes the best Christmas movies work. Dickens’s advocation of social justice doesn’t mean he didn’t have his own demons to work through, particularly involving his feelings towards his father. Pryce and Stevens play wonderfully off each other using this dynamic, which ends up re-teaching Dickens the meaning of Christmas like the specters that haunt Scrooge.
At a time when the meaning of Christmas is in desperate need of a revival, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a glorious reminder of everything this holiday can be. Charming, delightful, moving, it’s everything you want out of a Christmas movie without being overly sappy and sentimental. It’s certainly a Christmas joy, one you can share with your whole family, year after year.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is now playing in theaters everywhere.