* * * 1/2
You’ll come for the promise – fulfilled – of excellent production design and a feast of fabulous British thespians, but you’ll stay for the surprisingly engaging story. The Irish-Canadian co-production which couldn’t be more British The Man Who Invented Christmas took me by surprise in all the right ways. It’s a delight.
Dan Stevens plays a younger Charles Dickens than Ralph Fiennes did in The Invisible Woman (2013). It’s 1843 and Dickens is famous and seemingly wealthy, with a lovely London house teeming with life – a lovely large family, servants, tradesmen. But he’s had three flops in a row, he has debtors at his heels, and he needs a hit. Lo and behold, to guide him through the writing of his new book, a Christmas fable ultimately to be called A Christmas Carol (spoiler alert: it was a hit), the characters of the book come to life (at least for him), most notably Scrooge, played deliciously by Christopher Plummer, who is truly a fine wine, getting better and better in his rich maturity (he’s 88).
That fantastical element works (again, surprisingly!) well, but it is the warmth of Dickens’ relationships with the real people in his busy life that gives the film so much generous spirit. In particular, his scenes with his best friend / “manager” John Forster (Justin Edwards) are all superb. Edwards is best known to me from The Thick of It, but your experience may vary: he’s been in an awful lot of British TV and film, and he brings a level of decent humanity to all of it, as he very much does here.
As for that production design: it’s wonderful! The London depicted here is “clean-grubby”, teeming with urchins, chimney sweeps, musicians, carriages and all manner of businesses, many of which are wittily named. There are jokes aplenty in each frame as Dickens and his cohorts rush through the crowded streets. And those thespians? How about – besides Stevens, Plummer and Edwards – Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes, Donald Sumpter, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, and about two dozen other faces you’ll recognise even if you don’t know their names? Margolyes and Callow both routinely tour one-person Dickens shows, a terrific piece of gentle meta-humour of which Dickens would approve, as he would, I am sure, of this lovely movie.