Thursday, 21 December 2017

Movie Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)



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The plot: After three prior flops, and a mountain of debt threatening to swallow him whole, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is struggling to come up with his latest novel. However, inspiration soon strikes and he begins work on a story about ghosts, misers and the holiday of Christmas. As he tries to navigate the hurdles in his own life, he begins to converse with the characters he is creating to flesh out the story, in particular the character who would go on to change Christmas as we know it forever: Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).




Dan Stevens is absolutely amazing in this thing, I really have no other way to put it. The sheer energy he puts into this more youthful Dickens than we’re used to seeing on-screen makes him look like a creative with an intense fire raging in his head, a fitting setup for the twists and turns his character undergoes throughout the story. The way he articulates Dickens’ words, doing all the voices and character movements as he goes, he also does a damn good job of portraying the man that Dickens would go on to become, that being a theatre performer who would recite his best-known works for the masses. Plummer has never portrayed Scrooge on screen before, and yet you would never have guessed that with how well he wears the character’s skin, channelling a very morose and cynical view of the world while bringing a lot of drama to the proceedings.

Jonathan Pryce as Charles’ father, apart from looking like how Dickens is usually portrayed in media, does very well with a rather fiddly role. Justin Edwards as Charles’ friend John Forster fits nicely into his scenes opposite Stevens, Anna Murphy as one of Charles’ maids Tara gives a very definite emotional thread to the overall picture, Ger Ryan as Charles’ wife is quite good, and Miles Jupp gives us a very scene-stealing presence as the critic Thackeray, basically coming across like I probably do to most people in how eager he is to tell people how much a certain work sucks.

Any form of writing, be it narrative, poetry or even critique, ostensibly feels like the most insane thing a person can do. Think about it: You are given a blank page (or screen, in the modern context) on which you can create literally anything out of thin air. That process sounds really intense, until you get a good look at someone in the middle of that process and all of the paper scrunching and rage-half-quitting it involves. This film’s approach to depicting the creative process shows both the literal and the metaphysical. The literal is shown through the logistics involved in that process, namely the funding needed to keep a roof over the artist’s head. The metaphysical is shown through Dickens having figurative conversations with his characters, all of whom act as if they have a will of their own beyond his machinations.

That’s pretty accurate to how the process feels to those who partake in it: When inspiration strikes, and you’re lucky enough to be in proximity to something to put the ideas down on, it feels like an external force is speaking through you, using your hands to carry out its will. That’s what makes the frustration we see in Dickens as he tries to put the pieces of the narrative puzzle together work as well as it does, as well as the elation when we finally see him slot those pieces into place. We get quite a few shots of Dickens staring with abject horror at his writing desk, and as the film carries on, you get a clear understand of why that is.

When it comes to stories about the people who write stories, particularly in the realms of cinema, a vital part of the equation is the ability to contextualize that story. It isn’t just a piece of fiction being created; it’s a narrative that the creator has to tell to gain some kind of personal closure. Saving Mr. Banks went with this approach, Goodbye Christopher Robin did to a lesser extent, and this film follows suit. This is where the idea of having his characters come to life and directly interact with him bears some rather interesting results, as we see his work become an extension of his own mindset. While the same can be said for any form of creative media, this film takes a more direct interest in showing what the story said about the man himself. And the answers we get are both illuminating and rather harrowing. As we see more of Dickens’ personal past and his present interactions with others, framed against the story of A Christmas Carol, we get a clear picture of a person who is unable to create a happy ending because he can’t imagine himself forgiving the person he created. Or, rather, who that person represents, and there’s more than one answer as to who that is.

Have to admit, even after digging into this film in my usual fashion, one thought still keeps running through my mind. It is the same thought that struck when I first learned of this film’s existence: Wow, that title alone is bound to piss people off! I mean, “The Man Who Invented Christmas”? We live in an era where there is supposedly a War On Christmas going on between the Christians and the non-Christians; surely, this would stoke the fire for that a bit, given how the people who even care to comment on it are usually just looking for an excuse to whine and moan. Well, that would be ignoring what Dickens’ work would end up doing for the holiday, and one of the main conceits of this film.
As is mentioned a few times in the dialogue, Christmas in Dickens’ time was a relatively small holiday. This will sound weird to those who are bombarded with yuletide imagery a scant day after Halloween every year, but that’s the effect that this had. Dickens re-contextualised the religious holiday and made it more humanist, focusing more on the sense of goodwill and cheer that people associate with the time of year. Some of the faithful might scoff at this for missing the point entirely, but as we see Charles rejoicing in the holiday spirit, you can’t help but think that the man did a good thing, however unintentionally. My family is rather secular and yet, for as long as I can remember, we have always celebrated Christmas. I’ve always associated it with feelings of togetherness and good cheer because of that, and it’s one of the reasons why I put in the extra effort around the holiday season. Writing a legendary novella in the space of six weeks, writing at least sixty-two reviews in the space of four weeks; it gives us joy and, hopefully, gives joy to the audience so why wouldn’t we?

All in all, this is about as solid as a Christmas film can get. The acting is incredible, with Dan Stevens all but wiping any memories of his turn in Beauty And The Missed Point from earlier this year, the visuals are straight-up Dickens in how they portray Victorian-era London, and the writing juggles metatextual analysis, biopic musings and Yuletide revisionism so effortlessly as to make me jealous that I can’t write as well as this myself. And as a bonus, this is one of the breeziest sits I’ve had all year; the pacing is that damn good that this film in no way feels like it actually took 104 minutes to get through. If you’re looking for a film to watch to get you in the Christmas spirit or holiday spirit or whatever-tradition-you-may-or-may-not-have-for-this-time-of-year spirit, this is where you’ll find it.

It ranks higher than Una, which may have been far more emotionally affecting but I can’t really see myself watching it again because of just how depressing it is. Given this film’s skill set and its remarkable pacing, I can see this becoming a semi-tradition in the years to come. However, as impressive as Susan Coyne’s writing is here, the individual pieces don’t click together as well as they did in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, a film that is undoubtedly less accessible than this but is ultimately more rewarding to break down and study.

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