Sean O’Rourke gets festive for The Man Who Invented Christmas, which screened at the Cork Film Festival.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted literary works of all time and, at least in my estimation, any work that engages with Dicken’s novel succeeds or fails largely based on its ability to capture that central feeling of joy the book imparts on its readers. Dickens’ words dance along the page in such a way that, to my knowledge, there’s no better work of fiction for cutting through the most pessimism-coaxing aspects of the holiday to the joy that should be at its centre.
The novel’s joyousness is precisely what The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, attempts to tap into. The film, almost entirely shot in Dublin, is often beautiful to look at. The costumes, tend towards the outrageous and colorful. Snow routinely falls around color-saturated red brick, illuminated by the yellow glow shining from shop windows. As such, there are frames, and indeed entire scenes, that capture that festive, joyful quality that the film so rightfully takes from Dicken’s work. It is unfortunate then that, through unfocused storytelling and an overabundance of on-the-nose references to the text, the film undermines its ability to achieve its joyful goal.
The film depicts a cash-strapped Dickens (an appropriately energetic Dan Stevens) reeling after a string of literary flops. Dickens proposes what will become A Christmas Carol to his publisher, but is rejected, prompting him to self-publish. Getting a loan to cover its costs, hiring an artist, a printer, and, above all, writing the thing, must be done in a mere six weeks. In the meantime, he is aided by his lovesick friend John Forster (Justin Edwards), tries to mend his marriage with Kate Dickens (Morfydd Clarke), elicits help from a new Irish servant girl (Anna Murphy), struggles with a father (Jonathan Pryce) for whom he feels great animosity and, perhaps most importantly, converses with Mr. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) in an often interesting interplay between author and his creation who seems more and more to represent something that Dickens must confront within himself.
Herein lies the problem: the film does not find a way to balance and develop these potentially interesting storylines and therefore fails to achieve an adequate emotional payoff for any of them.
These plot lines appear and disappear from the movie seemingly at random. For example, we learn early on that Forster has a fiancé. However, it is only brought up a couple other times in the film, each time causing me to remember that he is, in fact, engaged to be married and that I am supposed to be invested in the success or failure of their relationship. Some of the character dynamics do work well. Dickens’ clashes with his father are a highlight of the film, the actors showing themselves more than capable of carrying this particular plot should the film decide that it is the central thread. Scrooge and Dickens’ relationship, though it only exists in the author’s mind, could have probably sustained the film as well and indeed does attempt to carry much of the emotional weight near the end of the film. However, the emotional weight of these storylines is undercut since their development is crowded and ultimately suffocated amidst the rest of the film.
The film pairs this narrative confusion with other strange decisions on a stylistic level. As above described, the film is stylistic in its approach to its setting which is entirely appropriate to its tone. However, occasionally the camera seems to adopt an almost improvisational mode, with strange zooms and a bobbing, handheld effect which might lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings if gritty and authentic were the aesthetic, which they are not.
Even more distracting are the moments where Dickens finds inspiration for his novel. In certain scenes this works, such as when Dickens sees people dancing in an outdoor market which is eventually transformed into Fezziwig’s Christmas party. However, such intrusions become problematically on-the-nose, exemplified in a single scene where a wealthy man berates Charles with Scrooge’s “are there no prisons” speech nearly word for word, two children are seen in the folds of a large man’s robe, an unattended funeral for a man nobody loves is carried out, and a miserly looking man accosts Charles with the words “humbug,” all of which occurs in a matter of minutes. Such situations persist throughout the film, distracting from its numerous narrative through lines in favor of a game of “spot the reference.” Frustration with the film’s misplaced emphasis soon began to unravel the more joyful aspects of the film.
Such frustration is unfortunate because in certain moments, such as when Dickens walks through his office, silhouetted by the light coming through his windows, contorting himself, body and voice, straining to find the right articulation for Scrooge, the movie comes alive. Unfortunately, in its inability to tie these individual scenes into a compelling narrative, we are left with some well-done, festive, joyful scenes that are overshadowed by a constant string of on-the-nose in-jokes and an overabundance of plotlines with little emotional payoff, stifling the effusive joy the film attempts to unleash.
The film’s heart is in the right place and may, I hope, entice people to read the original novel. However, the problems mentioned above make it difficult to recommend on its own merits.
The Man Who Invented Christmas screened on 10th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival
In Irish cinemas 1st December