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November 23, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas gets scribbler and Scrooge right


Peter Howell/ Toronto Star 

The writing, and rewriting, of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is celebrated from the inside out in new film starring Christopher Plummer as Scrooge.

3 out of 4 stars

Starring Christopher Plummer, Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Morfydd Clark and Anna Murphy. Directed by Bharat Nalluri. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 104 minutes. PG

Chances are good that few of us would choose to welcome the festive season in the company of a story called Humbug: A Miser’s Lament, featuring a nasty character called Scratch.

We would, however, break out the eggnog and sugar plums for A Christmas Carol, starring a redeemable villain called Scrooge.

Clever marketing makes the difference between a clunker and a classic, but also a talented author named Charles Dickens. His singular seasonal sensation is celebrated from the inside out in The Man Who Invented Christmas, a surprisingly fresh movie about a story we all know very well.

Christopher Plummer (center, left) stars as Ebenezer Scrooge and Dan Stevens (center, right) stars as Charles Dickens in director Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas. (KERRY BROWN/BLEECKER STREET / TNS)

Directed by Bharat Nalluri, the sturdy helmer of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, it’s set in the Victorian London of 1843 and concerns the writing, late that year, of what we now know as A Christmas Carol.

A demoralized and frantic Dickens has taken on the task whilst wrestling with writer’s block, declining book sales and a looming Yuletide deadline, just six weeks away.

Meanwhile, as his serene wife Catherine (Morfydd Clark) announces she’s pregnant with their fifth child, creditors snap at the heels of Dickens and his ne’er-do-well father John (Jonathan Pryce) for their profligate spending.

Dickens is played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, who has the desperate writer’s look down cold. Blank pages loom before him and his leaky quill pen like an array of tombstones — or maybe a spectral presence called The Ghost of Christmas Book Yet to Come.

The film’s most keenly felt presence is Scrooge, however, just as in A Christmas Carol. Quarrelsome in a nightcap and fearsome in a top hat, he’s played by the invaluable Christopher Plummer as a combination bully and muse, and Plummer is clearly enjoying himself.

In the imaginings of Dickens, brought vividly and amusingly to life on the colourful screen, Scrooge and other characters-to-be jostle for his attention, annoying him but also motivating him.

There’s obvious whimsy in the cinematic telling of Dickens’ sprint to write and publish A Christmas Carol, quite apart from the magic realism of appearances by Scrooge and various spectral disturbances.

Did Dickens really play the accordion as he waited for inspiration to strike? Were the three visiting ghosts really sparked by the folk tales told to Dickens’ children by the family’s Irish housemaid Tara (Anna Murphy)?

Were Humbug: A Miser’s Lament and Scratch really first-draft considerations for the book’s title and main character’s name?

All that really matters here is the telling, not the fact-checking.

The screenplay by Canadian writer/actor Susan Coyne (TV’s Slings and Arrows) nimbly draws from author Les Standiford’s well-researched non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

That’s a very long handle but also an accurate and descriptive one for the making-of story of this holiday chestnut.