At the time, Downton Abbey fans may not have been too pleased with his premature departure from the role of young Matthew Crawley, but surely folks have come to realize that Dan Stevens actually has the talent to put together a nice little post-Downton career for himself. Along with decent (though small) performances in the third Night at the Museum movie, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and Colossal, he was one of the few bright spots of the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast re-do.
Now comes The Man Who Invented Christmas, giving Stevens his best role to date (better than Matthew, even)—portraying Charles Dickens as the author goes slightly loopy in the throes of writing A Christmas Carol. The witty and inventive screenplay by Canadian playwright Susan Coyne (Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle) may take more than a few liberties, but the end result is one of the more clever and festive holiday movies in recent years.
The story begins in the fall of 1843, as Dickens is reeling from poor sales of his previous three books. He needs a best-seller fast (with four kids and a fifth on the way and in the midst of major home renovations), and he alights on a Christmas tale. Being October, however, that means he only has six weeks to craft the entire book, so he leaps into full-on author mode—which would be fine if he weren’t combating writer’s block. We watch as Dickens frantically takes inspiration from the everyday goings-on in his world; a waiter named Marley, an ignored funeral for an unloved man, a rich acquaintance mentioning the poor should die so as to decrease the surplus population, etc.
Stevens throws himself into the role head-first, presenting Dickens as a slightly manic but utterly devoted author and family man. He’s a ton of fun to watch, particularly during the scenes of Dickens’ creative process; it’s practically impossible to avoid yelling out at the screen when he’s attempting to name his lead character. “Scourge, Ssssss-crunge, Scrrrrr-atch,” he ponders, before finally getting it right. And then, once Scrooge is created, the character is brought to life onscreen by a pitch-perfect Christopher Plummer, who serves as a pseudo-muse for Dickens. A crusty, mumbling muse, sure, but a muse nonetheless.
Director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) does some magical work with Coyne’s script, bouncing back and forth with some flashbacks of Dickens’ youth to give the right dose of perspective (though some of it, including a rat-infested workhouse, may be fairly intense for viewers of single-digit age). And he sets the mood and tone of the holiday season in early Victorian England perfectly, giving a true sense of how the Christmas season was very much an afterthought in those days.
Buoyed by Mychael Danna’s delightful score and Paki Smith’s production design, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fun and whimsical peek behind the curtain at what has endured as perhaps the greatest holiday novel ever written. No bah humbugs about it.