Darkness and Light Perfectly Balanced in "Christmas"
A fascinating man with many conflicting attitudes and personae, Charles Dickens was a major celebrity from 1840 until his death in 1870. His serialized stories were a sensation, captivating readers in his native England and the Americas, millions waiting on tender hooks for each installment. He was much in demand for public readings of his stories, and once released in novel form, most were runaway hits. Yet the man millions loved was one with a dark side, haunted by the specter of the poverty he grew up in. Subject to violent mood swings and dealing with stress due to being stretched thin financially as well as having far too many professional commitments, the author was far from the happy, warm chap the public thought him to be.
Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, looks at one of the more tumultuous times in Dickens’ life and the work that resulted from it. In October of 1843, the author is attempting to deal with circumstances he could not possibly have imagined 18 months earlier. What with three consecutive critical and commercial failures, as well as publishers of questionable virtue, a case of writer’s block and a fifth child on the way, the writer finds himself at loose ends, unable to see a way out of his troubles. Yet, when he least expects it, inspiration comes from out of the blue in the form of a ghost story set at Christmas about a miserly man who’s forced to confront the sins of his past. Dickens isn’t quite sure how the story will end or even the name of all the characters, but he believes in the idea and decides to write, publish and distribute the story himself. This is quite a feat in and of itself but having to get it done in six weeks so the book might be available for the Christmas season makes it appear impossible.
There’s a whimsical tone to the film that infuses many of its scenes with a lighthearted mood that makes for grand entertainment. As Dickens finds his inspiration for many of the book’s seminal scenes and characters while walking about London, you can’t help but smile to yourself upon realizing just how these seemingly disparate elements will be integrated into the book we know. This is all great fun.
However, the movie is not without its darker moments as the script by Susan Coyne, an adaptation of the book by Les Standiford, delves into the author’s tumultuous childhood as well. Dickens’ father John (Jonathan Pryce) appears on the scene, a good-natured ne’er-do-well whose inability to properly balance his family’s finances caused him to be sent to debtor’s prison and in turn was the impetus for Charles to be sent to work in a boot-blacking factory at the age of eight. This triggers a great many repressed memories in the author. In working through his harrowing past, the author undergoes a transformation of his own, rendered ironic by the fact that Scrooge is his guide.
As for Scrooge, as rendered by Christopher Plummer, he’s a character that is, as yet not fully developed. He and other key figures from A Christmas Carol wait about Dickens’ office with nothing to do, anxious for him to complete the story so that their fates might be revealed. It’s an ingenious device that provides a unique perspective on an author’s creative process and the frustration and elation that accompanies it.
Some liberties are taken with the truth as far as where Dickens received all of his inspiration and the film doesn’t reveal the financial impact the book had on the author and his family. Yet, the movie’s message is much in need today and its impact need not be dulled. Why let a few trifling truths get in the way of the telling of a good tale? I have a feeling Mr. Dickens would agree with this sentiment.