Charles Dickens is pacing his study, muttering loudly enough that the servants can hear. And giggle.
“SCRATCH!” he says. “Scroooou-ples. SCRAMPLE.”
It’s important work, a big part of his process.
“Get the name right,” says Dickens, who delighted in “collecting” unusual names for later use in his fiction, “and if you’re lucky, the character will appear.”
And in any version of “A Christmas Carol,” if you get the right Scrooge, all else falls into place.
That’s what “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is, a fanciful, semi-historical spin on Dickens’ most famous work, ostensibly about how he came to write it. And while its Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, the oft-employed “Downton Abbey” alumnus, is fine, its Scrooge is one for the ages.
Christopher Plummer, an actor whose career’s third act has been filled with Dickens — it began with a dazzling villainous turn in “Nicholas Nickleby” in 2002 — and assorted other Oscar nominated and Oscar-winning delights, is a perfectly adorable grouse, a towering cadaver of Victorian sarcasm, the muse who haunts Dickens as he frantically searches his past, his acquaintances and his city’s streets in a mad scramble to finish his self-financed masterpiece in a mere six weeks in 1843.
It’s obvious Plummer is perfect from his first scene, a chance encounter where Dickens observes him as the sole mourner of his late “business partner.”
And as Dickens leads his the growing cast of this novella (in his head) through London, looking for a Fezziwig, a Ghost of Christmas Present or Bob Cratchit, Plummer’s Scrooge is his droll, bored critic-in-residence, there to comment on anything or any place that gives the manic writer inspiration.
“It’s a market, you idiot.”
It’s not the first film or play to use this writer-haunted-by-his-characters device, but that pays dividends in a cute, sentimental holiday film whose ethos is uttered by Dickens’ long-suffering mother (Ger Ryan) when explaining her Christmas pudding recipe to Dickens’ wife (Morfydd Clark).
“The secret is to warm the treacle.”
Dickens’ impoverished, workhouse (child slave labor) past hangs over him, his debts and spendthrift ways remind him too much of his ne’er do well dad (Jonathan Pryce), his publishers skeptical, as he’s produced three flops in a row. Adored by his public, at home and in America, he’s got to get this short “Carol…in prose” done, perfectly illustrated (Simon Callow is Leech, the talented but imperious engraver) and into stores before Christmas.
But bless his soul, there’s inspiration all around him — the unemployed brother-in-law with the consumptive, crippled son, the creaky barrister/lender who keeps padlocks on his safe, the rattling old waiter named “Marley.”
Fans of British character actors will recognize the several, among them the great Scot Bill Paterson as a wealthy fan, a delusional “self-made man” undeterred by his wife’s reminder that her dad left them a factory, who supplies the author with his heartless “decrease the surplus population” quip.
It’s “A Christmas Carol” riff for those who already know the story, and entirely too on-the-nose for its own good. The Irish/Canadian production is handsome, beautifully-costumed if rather clumsily lit — not quite BBC/PBS level polish. And for all the suggestion of impending ruin, the script and Stevens’ performance of it lack urgency and desperation.
The odd boner — having Dickens feted with “Yankee Doodle Dandy” during his American tour of 1842 is about 60 years before the song was written – creeps in. And some plot contrivances, banishing the Irish maid (Anna Murphy) who gives Dickens his ghost story idea, are simple and overly-obvious plot devices.
But one of the greatest tales in the English language gets its moist-eyed due, simply by following the recipe the master laid out 174 Christmases ago.
“The secret is to warm the treacle.”
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some mild language
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Morfyyd Clark, Miriam Margolyes, Jonathan Pryce, Anna Murphy, Simon Callow
Credits: Directed by Bharat Nalluri, script by Susan Coyne, based on the Les Standiford. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:44