The Man Who Invented Christmas

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* * * 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.

Colossal

colossal-poster2*1/2 (out of five)

Perhaps trying to be edgy, alternative, hip, cool – anything other than Oscar-winning for singing a brutally beautiful song in Les Miserables – Anne Hathaway has made a spectacularly misguided career decision in agreeing to star in Colossal, a rampaging misfire of a movie. What may have seemed like a deliriously different project on paper emerges, on screen, as a sullen, weirdly dated anti-date flick, a film for no-one with a message no-one wants.

It starts like any old (emphasis on “old”) chick-flick rom-com; Hathaway’s Gloria, being out of work in The Big Apple, is drinking too much, has been tossed out of her groovy loft by her dapper English boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and has headed back to her old house upstate to get her shit together, where she meets old school friend and now handsome and nice and very available Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Then things get weird, but weird-bad, not weird-cool.

Spoilers, I suppose, ahead.

So far, so rom-com. But the first act turning point sees Gloria discover that she’s responsible for the huge sea lizard that’s recently begun terrorising poor Seoul. When Oscar discovers he’s responsible for a similarly malignant giant robot, the stage should be set for a really quirky romance. But no… instead, the film takes a very nasty turn and becomes not romantic but an honest-to-goodness war between the sexes film, including physical fisticuffs, man on woman. Sudeikis, I suppose, shows range, but Oscar becomes reprehensible, and the entire second half of the film is a morose examination of his relentless – and increasingly boring – bullying of Gloria. Including, as I’ve said, physical violence. There’s no kiss and make-up in the stars for these two. This isn’t 50 Shades of Grey; more like The Burning Bed.

It’s also not Arrival. I had a lot of problems with that film, but one thing it did extremely well was try to be realistic about how the world would react to an alien arrival. Colossal makes no such attempt, and, even though it’s not a “monster movie” per se, the lack of effort to even be a little believable shows contempt for the audience. There are a million plot holes, inconsistencies and logical absurdities, the biggest being that the good citizens of Seoul – and their authority figures – make no attempt to stay safe – such as by avoiding eating noodles and drinking coffee at exactly the time and place the huge beasts keep appearing and stepping on people.

The film is obviously using the monsters as metaphors for alcoholism and domestic violence – the emphasis here being obviously. This is really ham-fisted, nail-hammering, on-the-nose stuff – as clunky and over-emphatic as this sentence. And when it all ends, the final line reveals a Gloria who may have learned nothing at all. Making us the fools for wasting nearly two hours with her and her mean, awful, misogynistic friends. Salut, indeed.