Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017).

This is a film that's interesting to talk about.  It's got enough to unpack, in and of itself, that's true.  However, there's a kind of bittersweet serendipity at work here as well.  At the start of this year, one of the great lights in the history of cinema finally went out.  Here and now, at the very tail end of the turning of the year, and the start of the seasons, we come to one of the final performances of Sir Christopher Plummer.  For whatever it's worth, at least I can say with an honest face that I never meant for this article to take on the air of a pseudo-memorial.  Nor, as long as we're keeping things honest, is it my intention to make this a gloomy affair.  In the first place, both the holiday, and one of the key figures at the heart of it (the very subject of this film, in fact) tend to mitigate against it.  There's a reason why the author of A Christmas Carol referred to it as "this festive season of the year".  It's a maxim I intend to live by.  In the second place, I can't seem to shake the idea that Plummer himself might have wanted us to enjoy the film for what it is, in the same spirit in which it was given.  That's another goal that I at least hope I can live up to, even if none of us have ever been sure what that entails.  

For me, it means focusing on the story itself, as well as the nature and quality of the writing that went into it.  Same as it ever was, in other words.  That's not to say I believe it's possible to just leave it at that without at least paying some kind of final respects to a great actor.  What I think I can promise is that when the time comes, I'll not mourn, so much a celebrate both a fine career, and a great film to go along with it.  With all this in mind, let's move on to the proper business of criticism, which I'm sure even an actor of Plummer's talent would have encouraged, not matter the final verdict.  And so, with all that said....

We don't tend to think much about where things come from.  Have you ever noticed that?  It's a strange form of free-floating incuriosity that the vast majority of people in the world seem willing to live with.  Either that or else I'm just stuck having to go by the criteria provided by own American surroundings.  Maybe it's different in other countries.  All I can highlight with any certainty is that most of us Yanks can't be bothered to even stop and consider the ideas, facts, and events that have shaped our behavior.  Take Christmas, for example.  Or maybe don't?  I'm told it's kind of a sensitive topic.  Charles Schulz was of the opinion that the three topics you were never supposed to bring up were politics, religion, and the Great Pumpkin.  For what it's worth, I'm not interested in any so-called war, for or against.  Instead, my interest lies a lot closer to home.  I'm interested in the later traditions that have accrued around the holiday.  I'm talking about wreaths placed on front doors, and bows of holly mixed with red ribbons and lights decorating fence posts, front porches, and trees.  The modern iconography of the season, in other words.  I guess you could say I'm sometimes curious about where it all comes from.

Now, to be fair, it's not like I have or can give anything like the full answer, here.  I'm just another passenger on the same train, like other folks.  However, as someone who tends to get a kick out of the whole Holiday vibe, it is nice to pick up what bits and pieces of info you can about it.  The best collective piece of information I've ever gotten on the great winter festival comes from the writings of two men.  One of them is more or less still famous, or at least reasonably well known.  The other was just one of the former guy's many biographers.  Way back in another time and world known as 2008, an author, critic, and historian known as Les Standiford released a work of nonfiction known simply as The Man Who Invented Christmas.  The nature and content of the whole book seems pretty well summarized by its subtitle: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.  


Turning to the dust jacket's inside-flap, the prospective reader is given a further bit of clarifying information: "As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world".  That, in essence, is the story that Standiford has to tell for his his readers.  In some ways, the final product itself can also stand as an act of revivification.  These days, if you say a phrase like Christmas Carol, or a name like Scrooge (even if it's just hurled out at random in the moment, as a form of insult) what tends to happen is almost capable of being charted on a graph.  The very words themselves tend to dredge up various, assorted old memories.  Most of these tend to cluster in and around the age of childhood, as that seems to be about the time that most of us tend to make our first acquaintances with Mr. Dickens, and his little holiday fairy tale.  The whole thing seems to have become an unofficial rite of passage.  We may see images of a "grasping, covetous, old sinner" dressed in black against the cold.  Or else we might see the same figure clad in just a night gown and a candle for company.  

This old sinner is far from alone, either.  In addition, we've got memories of a quartet of ghosts, some in chains, some in light, others dressed in holly leaves and robes.  Some still manage to creep the hell out of us all these years later, and one of them is best avoided altogether.  One or two of them might even be comforting, in their own strange way.  Beyond all this, there's the lingering sense of a very specific time and place.  Or maybe it's a central standard no-place-at-all.  Something that's just as much a product of Imagination as Middle Earth or Neverland.  In this case, however, I like to think there's at least some truth in the trope, or picture postcard image we've come to think of as the Dickensian cityscape or winter village.  They at least have a firm grounding in historical reality (though even Middle Earth might qualify for that same category, surprisingly enough).  This is about as far as most of us can go when it comes to Dickens and his Carol.  The whole thing has become so much a part of the general furniture of our minds that it's more of an item we like to dust off and admire for a moment or two, every now and then, before tucking it away back among the mothballs and old Monopoly board.

Very few of us seem to have much in the way of a reason to examine this story, or the Holiday that spawned it in any great detail.  The cool thing about Standiford's book is that it's written in such a way as to give even the casual fans a reason to keep turning the pages.  Standiford's prose is simple and engaging by turns, framing the actual history in narrative, novelistic terms.  It's what allows us to treat the creation of the Carol as an adventure we can sink our teeth into.  It's made all the more enticing by the way Standiford is able to show how Dickens was able to help solidify a lot of the modern traditions that we now have and associate with Christmas.  What Standiford is able to make clear, and what makes his study such a good read, is how much our current sense of the fun during the Holidays is owed to a former, Victorian newspaper sketch writer, who once signed his efforts with the pen-name of Boz.


From what I can tell, Standiford's efforts seem to have been given a pretty warm reception.  It was so well received, in fact, that a little later on, the book was optioned for a film development by Universal studios.  It seems to be one of those obtuse deals that can happen in Hollywood, ever so often.  Somebody somewhere will be doing a bit of navel-gazing, or caught up in a desperate search for material, and then they hit upon books like Standiford's in passing, so, viola, an idea that's better than starving to death in L.A., that's for darn sure, if nothing else is.  I guess the biggest surprise is that the book was able to get optioned at all.  It's not the sort of item you'd think would make a good film project.  I can recall raising a skeptical eye myself once I caught one of the first trailers online.  Still, the year came and went, and the movie adaptation appeared along with it.  Just in time for the Holiday season, and everything.  Which leaves just one question.  How does it stand on its own two legs?

The Story.

It is said that fame is a vapor.  Granted, what could be the use of labeling it as such is more than I can see.  Indeed, there is little to nothing in the concept that would suggest it as any kind of vaporous gas whatsoever.  Though it might be that certain numbers among the famous and powerful can spoken of as "full of it".  Perhaps a better simile would be to compare the estate spoken of in terms of the fabled Chimaera, or perhaps a less than welcome habit.  It's a fickle mistress, one that is often unreliable, and there's always the constant worry over being a "name" that is forgotten, as opposed to one that is allowed to stay.  This is the sort of challenge that young Master Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) finds himself confronted with near the end of the year of Our Lord, 1843.  His career up to that point had been both celebrated and checkered by turns.  And to think that it all used to be so simple.

It all began in earnest during the years 1832-3.  He'd managed to snag a decent paying position as a journalist, and occasional short story writer, and worked his way on up the ladder from there.  A lot of it was down to the young man's way with words.  It was a knack that took a long time to develop, and was able to stand him in good stead.  His words displayed not only a surprising amount of literacy, yet also a genuine power of persuasion.  Young Dickens had a tendency to use his meager column space to write about the plight of the poor and lower classes of 19th century Britain.  Over time, it was this advocacy that would cause him to be labeled as a voice of the people.  Much of this incidental journalism would go together, along with tales and sketches to make his first, collected book full of short subject matter.


The young man seemed to possess an admirable drive of creative ambition, one that wouldn't allow him to stay in one place, or confine the author to just one type of story.  It was this innate talent that led to first the creation and then publication of The Pickwick Papers.  It proved to be Dickens's breakout success.  From there, the momentum began to build.  The next publication to follow was a book called Oliver Twist in 1838.  Followed not long after by Nicholas Nickleby the next year, in 39.  These were his first novels, and together they were able to accomplish two things at once.  The first was that they helped establish Dickens's identity as a writer.  They were the first to suggest the kind of story he was best at, and the whole literary atmosphere that suffused just about everything he ever wrote.  

It's a style that relied on a unique and highly developed sense of caricature to achieve its best effects.  The universe of Dickens' stories are populated by figures who are both grotesque, comical, and down-to-earth by turns.  Even the streets, narrow lanes, and back alley byways are drawn in contrasts that often seem larger than life.  It's this strange combination of the realistic suffused with just the faintest hints of the fantastic that marks out the nature of a Dickens story.  The writer seems to have taken life in with such immediate vividness that it leaves everything looking as if it's ready to jump off the page into it's own form of vibrancy.  In Dickens's hands, the ordinary streets of London come off sounding like the inner contents of a carnival fairground, complete with the same lurid yet somehow beguiling color palette.  Even the darkest corners of his books are painted in such bright contrast that it's hard not to tell when the author is enjoying himself immensely.  The interesting part is that he's often good at being able to hand this enthusiasm off to the reader with an often careless seeming ease.

This then, was the reputation that Dickens was able to build for himself over the steady course of just seven years of hard work.  By the time the final installment of Nickleby had seen its final magazine run, the young man was both a professional author, as well as being a bright young name for himself.  Then came The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, along with Martin Chuzzlewit.  None of them were any great shakes, and most of them were a clear case of the law of diminishing returns.  By the year 1843, Dickens had found himself descending from the height of Parnassus to a well-defined trough period.  To be fair, this might just be the kind of thing that all writers experience.  The trouble is by this point Dickens had pretty much gone to a "great deal of expense" in his own life, and it was all starting to catch up to him in the worst possible way.  


Relations with his wife (Morfydd Clark) are beginning to show the signs of strain.  The children, bless them, seem to be taking it in stride.  Though the arrival of Tara (Anna Murphy), a new maid, who is also something of a bright young lass, with a wealth of old folklore knowledge inherited from her family, might have something to do with it.  The problem is the price of his living has gone up, and his literary productivity seems to have fallen down a good ways.  Then there's life with father.  Charles and John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) have been in a strained sort of relationship for some time.  It's like Bob Dylan said, "A lot of water under the bridge, lotta...other stuff, too".  In Charles's case, it all stems from what he considers the most embarrassing moment in his life.  It was also probably the most brutal experience he ever had.  And it all goes back to that same blacking factory where he was forced to earn his keep at such a tender age.  That damn place has been recurring in his mind a lot, lately.  A tell-tale sign which an intelligent observer might point to, as the creeping indicator of a mid-life crisis.

In addition to money woes, his parents moving back in, and the personal tole all this is taking, there's still the question of where his career might be headed?  He hasn't written much of interest in years, and his publishers and bank loaners are starting to get itchy trigger fingers.  The whole thing is enough to drive even a normal man up the wall in desperation.  The funny thing is how this can sometimes be just the ticket for the right sort of artistic temperament.  On the spur of the moment, Dickens proposes to the publishers of Chapman and Hall that he has a new book in the works.  A Christmas story, to be exact.  Nothing fancy, like all the other times, either.  Just something short and sweet.  A nice present for the publisher's holiday lists.  In retrospect, it might have been Chapman's (or was it Hall's?) question of "Why Christmas?" that really kicked the whole thing into first gear.  If there's one thing that can set Dickens' mind into overdrive, then it's the feeling being challenged, especially if the question itself is an essentially pointless one.  It's more or less the same reason Columbus discovered America.

So, with his word as a solemn promise, and a firm sense of resolve, Charles Dickens took his place at his writing desk in the year of 1843 to write a story for Christmas!...The idea sounds promising.  He just wished he had even the faintest idea of what it was he had to tell.  To his own surprise, however, a cast of characters and situations slowly begin to appear in his mind.  The first to arrive is that old sinner, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).  It's not long before he's followed by his former business partner, Jacob Marley (Donald Sumpter), who at the moment seems worse off than the proverbial door nail.  The arrival of both is unexpected, as well as a somewhat pleasant surprise.  It's not longer before Scrooge is waking Charles in the middle of the night to announce the arrival of a new character and development in the plot.  The story seems to be taking on a greater weight and complexity as things unfold, and it soon looks as if Charles's initial "little story" is on its way to being something else entirely.

That might very well be sort of the problem.  It's hard to pinpoint when things started to go wrong.  It might not have happened all at once, yet sooner, rather than later, everything got out of hand.  For one thing, the cast started to get more crowded than anticipated.  He might have been willing to talk about the affairs of a miser over the course of one night.  He didn't exactly expect to get caught up unraveling an entire life story, and all the people in it, however!  To make things worse, it really does seem as if the cast itself is starting to take over.  It all might have begun in a directed manner, however as things have gone on, it's pretty clear that everyone is acting out their own part as they see fit, and Charles's isn't writing anymore, so much as taking dictation.  For some reason, he treats this as if it were a genuine problem, rather than a sign that things are going more than well from a narrative perspective.  A lot of it may have to do with the uncomfortable way the story seems to be mirroring the problems Charles is having with his wife, family, and in particular, his father and a very guilty sense of the past.  Didn't Shakespeare say that all good fiction is capable of holding up a mirror to reality?  Well if that's the case, then heaven help the artist if the mirror should ever turn its reflection onto him!


In retrospect, it might just be possible to pinpoint the exact moment when everything started to go wrong.  It must have happened almost immediately, on that first night when he got the ball rolling, and Marley shambled and dragged his chains into the room for the first time.  It was all going so well, at first.  He was in his element as a writer, and scribbling down lines of dialogue and ideas as they seemed to appear out of whatever kind of aether the Imagination is.  Then something happened that, in looking back, might have been an omen.  Marley spoke the following lines: "Would you know the weight and length of the chain you bear"?  And Dickens, out of pure artistic curiosity asked, indicating Scrooge, "You mean him, surely"?  That's when Marley turned to the writer, and stated in plain, simple terms: "No, Charlie...I mean you"!

A Truth Inside a Lie.

One of the first things that's got to be made clear about this film, is The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn't really exist in a vacuum.  I've seen at least one other example of the kind of story it has to tell.  I'm thinking here of Shakespeare in Love, a 1998, turn of the century Rom-Com about the writing and initial performance of Romeo and Juliet.  It's a film that's both good and infamous at the same time.  A lot of it is down to the way it was treated at the Oscars in relation to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.  It's sort of a shame, really.  Cause when you put all that crap aside, and can just focus in on the movie itself, as just a story, then it does prove to be a genuine charmer.  What's interesting is that it is able to work in spite of not having any single root in the history of Shakespeare's actual life, aside from the movie's basic setting and cast of characters.  The rest is just pure fiction from the pen of Tom Stoppard.

In many ways, the film under discussion today can be said to act as a spiritual successor to Stoppard's late 90s effort.  It concerns itself with a real life event, and then proceeds to chuck reality out the window by cooking up a total fabrication around it.  Compare this movie, for instance, to one that's a lot more grounded in the facts, like Selma.  The contrast is stark enough to be downright glaring.  The good news, for this other of film, at least, is that none of it amounts to any kind of deal breaker.  I think I'm willing to go far enough to say that as long as the subject matter being dealt with isn't too serious, then this is the kind of storytelling experiment that writers and directors might just be able to get away with.  That said, I've also got to admit that there are other times when this shouldn't even be tackled at all.  I don't think you can get away with this sort of treatment in, say, the struggles of a figure like Martin Luther King, for instance.  That's a whole other situation.  In cases like that, the rule of thumb seems to be that you either play it straight, or else you pick up your toy wagon and move the hell on.

With figures like Dickens or Mozart, however, the rules seem a bit more flexible.  A lot of it seems to be down to the way these men lived their lives.  Films like Amadeus are able not to shy away from the fact that these types of artists can have their dark periods.  The key thing to note is that such films also reveal that its possible to show how the bad times don't always have to win out, and that sometimes another reason certain artists are referred to as great may be because of the way they triumph over adversity.  

Another thing that films like Christmas and Shakespeare have in common is a shared tendency.  Each of them makes the wise storytelling choice to limit their focus to just a handful of of their main subject, the creation of a work of art, and how it reflects and is effected by the life of the artist.  It's a topic that's more than worth exploring all on its own.  And as this and other films have demonstrated, it can be approached in either a straight-forward or imaginative manner.  Bharat Nalluri, the director of this film, chooses to take the material into latter direction.  The result winds up as kind of an intriguing surprise.

It's to Nalluri's credit that he is able to keep the viewer engaged as well as he does.  One of the pitfalls of this type of romanticized biography is that in trying to be romantic, the filmmaker instead winds up with  a premise and execution that is contrived.  Whenever that happens, it think it's less a case of the failure of Romanticism proper, and more that the director, the writer, or both together have failed to understand either the sub-genre they have to operate in, or else they just couldn't find the right way into the material they had to work with.  

In the case of The Man Who Invented Christmas, both Nalluri and his writer, Susan Coyne, have managed to find whatever point of entry was necessary in order to make the story work.  A lot of help may have been given from the original literary source material in particular, and just by Dickens and his artistry in general.  There's something fortuitous in choosing the writer of A Christmas Carol as your springboard.  Dickens is one of those rare breads, an artist who can make the realistic look fantastic.  Even if there is no obvious sign of enchantment to be had, the reader of a work by Boz at his best, often comes away with the sense that they've just finished reading a fairy tale.  One in which all the fantastic creatures of myth have obliged by donning a series of larger than life human masks.


It's a setup that leaves both reader and artist with a flexibility born out of an imaginative space that is big enough to allow for the kind of flight of fancy that Nalluri's film is able to indulge in.  And the remarkable thing is how well he's able to get away with it.  There are all sort of pitfalls that this sort of approach has to be aware of, and it's to Nalluri and Coyle's credit that they are able avoid the traps of films like Bohemian Rhapsody, Wired, or Man in the Moon, while still remaining committed to taking the whole idea in a more imaginative direction.  Both the director and the script seem to delight in having fun with the concept.  

The Dickens at the heart of the film is an amalgamation of real life facts and make-believe that is combined in a surprisingly effective way.  The character generated by this peculiar, yet potent mixtures is by turns a sitcom dad, a straightforward dramatic actor, a mercurial trickster with a natural comic talent, a troubled young(ish) man with a guilty past, and a big kid with an overactive imagination.  He's a character of many moving parts, each of them jockeying for position as the situation demands, and it's to Dan Stevens's credit as an actor that he is able to embody each of these disparate elements, and make it all look like these are just the natural components of a single human being.

In most normal stories, trying to cram this many elements in a character is usually considered the kiss of death.  Part of what allows Nalluri and Coyle to get away with it in this case is because of the simple, yet unstated fact that the actual Dickens really was sometimes larger than life.  He was raised as something of a family entertainer, the child everyone places up on the table or the stage in order to "give us a song"!  As a result, his initial impression of life was literally that of "All the world's a stage, and the men and women in it merely players".  It's the sort of character note that also begins to help make a great deal of sense when you see him adopting to what amounts to a number of different persona's based on the company he is in.  In front of his publishers and accountants, he's always the streetwise trickster having to think on is feet in order to keep one step ahead of the taxman.  In places like the Garrick Club, he's a combination of world-weary artiste, and witty raconteur.  At home, in front of his kids, you can see him as desperate to be as perfect as dad as possible.  While in collaboration with fellow artists, such as the temperamental John Leech (Simon Callow) he displays the skill of negotiation, as well as an ability to help springboard ideas that allow the story to come to life.

It's in the moments where Dickens has locked himself away in his writing room that we begin to get a closer sense of just who the character is.  These are the moments where the film is able to indulge in a winning sense of fancy.  We're given scenes of Dickens holding conversations with his fictional creations, such as Scrooge, as they try to hammer out the story together.  These incidents function as a series of constantly interrupted storyboard meetings if they were held in a Victorian space reminiscent of the Brother's Grimm.  Dickens will be either alone in his room, or walking through the busy streets of London, when sometimes one of the characters from the Carol will appear, and the scenery around him becomes less realistic, and more caricatured and stagey.  At these moments, Charles will drop everything to begin taking story notes.  The result is a funny and enjoyable combination.  It's kind of like the writer's room in places such as Saturday Night Live as described by E.T.A. Hoffman.


There are other scenes where the story shows just how much life it has in it (the best example of this is the scenes with Leech, Chapman, and Hall, along with a few conversations with William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp).  However, it's really in those moments when Dickens has locked himself away in his writing office where the movie comes the most alive, as well it should.  Nor is it at all surprising that these are the moments where Coyle decides to give her imagination the free reign to take flight from history, and go pretty much wherever it pleases.  We've entered the realm of fantasy whenever Dickens is alone with his characters, and I can think of no greater irony than the fact that it's also in these scenes where the story is most interested in digging into the heart of the facts in the real life of Charles Dickens.  It's a combination of realism and romanticism that is surprising in its dramatic welding.  The whole thing comes off as so seamless that it's not surprising to learn that most audiences have never given it that much in the way of a second though.

It's also these moment of make believe where the real Dickens is allowed to step on-stage.  Here we see the writer with his guard down.  And what he shows us, when no one else except the contents of his imagination is looking on, is a man who is at many loose ends, and always sort of unsure of himself.  In fact, the more the film goes on, the clearer it becomes that Dickens has, up to now, never really had all the clear a sense of just who he is.  It may be a dramatic choice on the part of the writer and director, however based on what I've read about the real author, I think they've managed to capture a key element from the actual life.  

It's a small narrative element, yet I think it is the one, vital thing, that is able to give their story it's needful sense of historical veracity.  It's what helps the film to stay grounded, even amidst the flights of fantasy.  In retrospect, it could very be that guys like Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer were able to accomplish something similar in their otherwise fictional account of the life of Mozart.  The story may have been apocryphal, yet it contained just enough of the core truth of both the artist and the art to able to get audiences to recognize the inherent authenticity of what they were seeing up on the screen.  Both films seem to have been able to capture a truth inside a lie.  It's probably the only real value that all works of fiction have going for them, in the end.

In the case of Dickens, the truth inside The Man Who Invented Christmas all seems to revolve around the author, and the figure of John Dickens.  This appears to be the one part of the film where fantasy gives way to commentary.  At the very least, the whole the direction that the film ultimately leads the viewer towards is a combination of literary criticism and psychological analysis couched in the form of a fictional imagining of what the writing of A Christmas Carol might have been like.  It's the sort of move on the artists' part that can be polarizing for audiences.  In doing so, they've placed themselves in the realm where mileage always has to vary, whether you want it to or not.  It can be tricky when an artist attempts to try and use his or her medium as a means toward understanding a work of art, and the artist who made it.  That's also not to claim that there is any inherent sense of wrong about it.  Such an effort may be just an intellectual exercise, the kind of thing which appeals most to cinema buffs and high school and college English majors.  However, that in itself can't get rid of the legitimacy of the enterprise.

I think what gives the most pause for real about a film like this that I'm having a difficult time recalling how many efforts I've seen where this form of storytelling was ever able to succeed in a big way?  On further thought, I can count them on the fingers of just one hand.  There was Forman's and Stoppard's efforts mentioned above, earlier.  You can throw in a flock of seagulls, if you want.  That's still all she wrote.  The result means the movie we have to deal with is a rare species, if not one of a kind.  I'm not sure how the majority of the audience can respond to a fable like this.  I'm also unsure whether they would even care that such a type even exists.  For better or worse, anyway, when we begins to reach the heart of things is when Nalluri and Coyle tip their hands.  Their real interest all along has been What Makes Charlie Run?  It's a creative focus that can be gratifying in the sense that it proves the film is more than just a pleasant Holiday surface package.  There is real meat to be bones of the story.

Since both writer and director are interested in figuring out Dickens himself, what made him tick, and how it all plays into the finished Carol, they slowly and ineluctably begin to zero the focus down to just three basic players on the stage: Dickens, Scrooge, and the role that the author's Father plays in the genesis of both the artist and artwork.  In order to help us arrive at their conclusion, Nalluri and Coyle present Dickens as a suit of armor that is slowly taken apart one scene at a time.  He starts out as the pleasant man-about-town figure that he presents to the public.  By the time we've reached the final act, the filmmakers have allowed a glimpse of the insecure bundle of nerves that lies underneath the picture-postcard portrait.  What is revealed from all this is a walking, talking, play-acting, mid-life identity crisis.  Underneath all the grand, charitable gestures, and artistic flourishes is man who is very confused and conflicted about what it means to be himself, versus the supposed goal of being a gentleman of letters.

It's a tricky concept to both play with, as well as try to get across to an audience.  It's to Nalluri and Coyle's credit that they are able to make such a complex concept work as well as it does in the finished product.  Or at least I know that it worked for me.  It could also be one of those cases where the more of a Dickens fan you are, the greater your knowledge of information about the author's life and his works, then the more the film is able to pay back in dividends.  In the movie's case, it all seems to come down to the question of a false sense of self that both Dickens the Elder and Younger have wound up constructing together for themselves.  When he was young, John Dickens often encouraged his young son, Charles, in the belief that he was some kind of "gentleman".  It's the sort of word that enjoys the same reputation today as "accountability" these days.  Stephen King once opined that the latter word might have died of embarrassment sometime in the 1970s.  The fortunes of being a "gentleman" don't seem to have faired much better, either.  If it has any reputation today, then it does so mainly as a punchline.

I'm not even sure when's the last time I can ever recall seeing or hearing of anyone who fit that description.  Perhaps it was always a mirage?  It seems like this was the most likely case for both John and Charles Dickens.  The dad was a lowly naval clerk, in a position very similar to that of Bob Cratchit, who I have to admit seems to share more than a few passing similarities with John the father.  In some ways, that does paint him in a good light, and yet there is also this lingering sense of irresponsibility in the family breadwinner that ultimately puts the lie to young Charles's self-image as a gentleman.  John Dickens was sent to prison for the inability to pay a debt, and Charles spent a good deal of his childhood in an Oliver Twist style state of existence.  He was put in charge of putting the labels on bottles of blacking polish in a factory, along with lines upon rows of other children of his age and station.  It's the sort of business arrangement that exists solely in Third World countries nowadays.  Back then, however, it was regarded as so much of the norm, that later on, Dickens raising the alarm against the unlawful use of child labor was considered an earth-shattering novelty.


The whole incident was a combination of mistakes.  One of which could have been avoided, two others of which should never have been allowed to happen at all.  The most obvious part has to do with the inherent barbarism of England's laissez faire  Victorian business economy.  The other is so subtle that it's no wonder even some biographers let it walk right by them.  In retrospect, perhaps the second worse thing John Dickens could have done was to allow his son to pretend to be something he was not.  Instilling the idea of "gentlemenliness" in the mind of a developing child, while also not letting him in on some necessary truths of life can often be the setup for disaster at some later date.  The date arrive not long after for Dickens Senior.  His imprisonment left his son on the streets, alone, and with a very confused sense of who he was.  He'd been told he was a gentleman.  He was now being treated for who he was, a pauper.  It was a situation which couldn't be.  And so here it was.  The result was a dilemma, or state of crisis, that instilled a budding sense of schism in young Dickens' idea of himself, and it took a long time for him to work the whole thing out before he could even begin to relate normally to other people, let alone those closest to him, like his own family.  In particular, his own father.

This, then, is the premise that seems to be at the heart of Nalluri's film, stated in it's most bare and essential terms.  It's the real life history that's leftover once you strip away all the fictional elements that have been tacked on by the director, along with the help of Coyle's script.  It's the kernel of hidden truth, tucked away within the folds of a celluloid lie.

Conclusion: A New Holiday Classic. 

If it sounds like I've made the film come off like either a dreary drudge, or else something that's too dark and unsuitable for a time like the Yuletide season, then I really do have to apologize, here.  That was not my intention at all.  Nor is it the goal of Nalluri and Coyle.  Together, they have created a film that is bursting with life and energy, even in its darker moments.  The film's camera work and set design present us with a vibrant and colorful London that complements the essentially festive character of Dickens and his works.  And even when the film takes one of its serious turns, such as when Dickens returns to the old factory where he used to work, in order to confront the literal ghosts of his past, the whole affair is still able to maintain its sense of holiday pageantry throughout.  The result is a celebration of both the writer (and the work that probably made him a household name) in a film that might just be able to function as a newfound classic for the Holiday season.

All the Yuletide favorites are here, from Marley and the Ghosts, to Crachit and Tim, all the way to the real people who surrounded Dickens's life.  Each of the actors gives a great performance that is able to carry over well the idea or thesis that Nalluri and Coyle are trying to get across.  Particular mention has to go to Dan Stevens, Jon Pryce, and in particular Chris Plummer.  Together, this triumvirate of actors go on to make up the heart of the film, and the story of a life it has to tell.  Together they are able to present the gripping yarn of a man who is ultimately willing to come to grips with who he is on the most festive occasion of the year.  The entire setup may sound like something we've all heard of before.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I could have just described a bare sketch of all the holiday programming broadcast on the Hallmark channel at this time of the year.


If that should ever turn out to be the case, then all I can do is hope that doesn't act to curb the audience's enthusiasm.  Because this is a film that's able to take the trope, and deliver some honest and genuine weight to the whole affair.  I think the main reason for that is because this time the filmmakers don't have some trite, made up scenario to work with.  Instead, they seem to have made the wise choice of letting their film be a thematic illustration of an actual thesis on the life of a real life author.  It's one of those ideas that sounds more obtuse than it is in actual practice.  Nalluri and Coyle don't just give us a pantomime of Dickens.  They're both able to present a clear picture of the author himself, and how his work effects his life, as well as vice-versa.  

The way it all works out is that both the screenwriter and director were able to arrive at an understand of Dickens in a way that allowed them to not just dramatize him for a story.  In addition to this, they both managed to pull off something else, a film that helps you contextualize everything that happened to Dickens after that point in his life, and how it all connects to what came before.  The whole concept that Nalluri and Coyle seem to be to arriving at is this idea that in addition to being a future classic of days past, A Christmas Carol also acted as something of a turning point, both in Dickens' life, and his career as an artist.  It signals a kind a sea-change, one in which the writer began what can only be described as a slow, yet genuine process of self-acceptance.  Dickens was starting to realize that neither he or his dad were ever anything high-born, no matter how much of a facade they habitually put on in front of the public.  

As a result, it can be argued that a lot of the books he published were a reconciliation process between the writer, his father, and their lives in general.  It helps if you stop and look at Dickens' career as a writer as amounting to a series of phases in his personal life.  The great, initial inflection point is when his father's illusions of status and influence were shattered by the family's fall into poverty.  It's an initial setup that follows the writer all the way up to the publication and fall out of Martin Chuzzlewit.  With the commencement and arrival of the Carol on the bookshelves and stalls, we enter the middle or second phase of the author's development.  This is a period that encompasses the majority of his Renaissance years as a "Man of Letters".  Not only had he reclaimed the peak of his popularity, but he was back on a winning creative streak, producing classics like Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities.  It's with Great Expectations that I believe we enter the final phase of Dickens' productivity as both artist and man.  That seems to be the book where he managed to work all of the personal hardship out of his system.  It's the one where he puts himself under the microscope once more, and is able to arrive at some kind of personal closure, both as an artist, as well as a human being.

Expectations is the last really introspective novel Dickens ever wrote, and there are some who regard it either as his best work, or at least being of near equal quality with the Carol.  It isn't until you place both books side by each other, and make a comparison of their respective narratives, that you begin to gain a better picture of just how far he'd come over the years between the two titles. It's a strange case, where the contents of one title seem to foreshadow the hoped for promise of the later one.  It was an accomplishment of some importance (if perhaps only to Dickens himself), and it is just possible to catch hints of where he would have gone on to from there.  The two remaining titles to his name are much more based on an outward-looking quality, with the focus being more on the world around him, rather than on the troubles of the inner life.  This could have been a sign of things to come.  

The trouble is that's a question we'll never have an answer to, at least not on whatever you choose to call this side of the coin (we tend to call it "Life", yet the more things go on, the less sure I am of what either that word or its opposite even mean anymore.  "Strange days, indeed" to quoth the Walrus).  Charles Dickens left the mortal coil on June, 9th, 1870.  He left behind him a large family, and a collection of scribblings that have since gone on to be regarded as among the great literary corpuses in English history.  His little Christmas book has gone on to become a beloved Holiday classic, and has cemented his name in popular culture for all time.  There will most likely never be another like him.

It's a sentiment that can also apply to at least one cast member from this film.  He's the most storied of all the players on the shared stage of the movie.  In retrospect, I'm just grateful he had a chance to give one more memorable performance for the ages.  It marks the end of an acquaintance that was made a lifetime and another world ago.  I first ran into Christopher Plummer during the course of Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg's An American Tail.  I hadn't a clue who he was at the time.  To tell the truth, I probably didn't know he was British until way later on.  At the time, all I saw was this talking pigeon with a French accent who claimed he was building a statue known simply as, Liberty.  He showed it off right at the end, and I think that was the first time I ever saw the national treasure up close, even if just in an illustrated format.  It wasn't until years later that I was able to realize I had Plummer to thank for my history lesson.  


Ever since that day, he was something like an off and on presence in my life.  One of those character actors who tend to put a lot more effort into their work (even if it's just a poverty row B picture) while everyone else around them is just phoning it in.  I would catch him here and there by accident, whether in a late night movie I stayed up to watch, or else it was as part of classic piece of old cinema that I'd been trying to get my hands on.  It was one of those deals where the significance tends to sneak up on you over time.  My encounters with Plummer's work was always a haphazard affair, like a series of accidental, yet always welcome run-ins with a familiar face.  It's not like you're ever expecting to meet up again.  And yet it's a fond pleasure whenever you do manage to catch up with the old fellow, on occasion.  

It wasn't until years later that it began to dawn on me just how much of an important sort of fixture Plummer was in the history of cinema.  You hear a phrase like Hollywood royalty tossed around about certain legacy actors.  You can argue with a title like that all you want.  Perhaps a better word is to call them the Real Actors, one of those types that kept up a concerted dedication to their craft, and it was this that allowed them to hang on and always find a place for themselves, even amidst the changing tides of showbiz history.  That seems to have been the ultimate legacy that Christopher Plummer was able to leave behind for himself.  He was a product of the New Wave movement that was beginning to make it's effect known on American cinema.  It's a crest he was able to pick up on and ride with a skill that allowed him to land roles in The Man Who Would Be King in the 70s, and later on, Malcolm X, in the 90s.

His career was both storied and reliable by degrees, able to encompass numerous great roles, while also somehow keeping afloat with a constant stream of steady work in a series of acting jobs, however big or small.  What's remarkable about it all, looking back, is how he never let it seem to phase him, or to dampen his spirit for the crafts of either acting or storytelling.  Throughout it all, he remained nothing less than a professional who knew how to keep his head above the fray, while others were busy losing theirs.  It's one of the main reasons he remained such a valuable commodity, performing in films to the very end.  In that sense, while The Man Who Invented Christmas might not have been his final role, it was perhaps his last great performance in the history of cinema.

It's something for which I think both the filmmakers, and the audience can be grateful for.  As he really does disappear into his part.  The first moment you see him on-screen, even if you may recognize him, he's still not the persona you're left to deal with.  It's not longer Sir Plummer up their on the screen, but Ebenezer Scrooge himself, and it's something of a tour-de-force.  They say a good actor is able to inhabit their character in such a way as to "bring them to life".  If I'm being honest though, it's kind of something I didn't even notice.  Instead, I was left in the room with a series of literary titans, and Plummer did what he should have.  He got out of the way and left me with just the character and his author, both of them in search of a story to put together.  In doing so, he doesn't deviate from the script, so much as he comes to embody what it means for Dickens on the personal and professional levels.

Susan Coyle's script allows Plummer to make Scrooge into a combination of angel and devil at the writers shoulder.  Sometimes offering Dickens encouragement by helping him find out what comes next in the narrative.  At others times, he will act as a guilty conscience, needling Charles over the internal contradiction between his aspirations, and who he truly is on the inside.  In all of this, Coyle is at pains to make sure the writing is always in place. so that both Scrooge and Dickens remain true to both their historical and fictional counterparts.  It's an ideal setup for an actor like Plummer, as it allows him all he needs to get the content of the words across.  The result is the same character that we know and hate-to-love (or vice-versa) from the original book, except now it seems like he's got a surprising amount of more to do, if that makes any sense.  The ultimate goal of Plummer's character is to act as a sort of guiding hand for his author.  In this sense, Plummer can be said to be doing double duty as a spectre of past, present, and either the promise or downfall of the future, at least as far as Dickens is concerned.


It is always possible to hurl one obvious criticism at this whole setup.  None of this is true, in the strictest sense, anyway.  It's true that in real life Dickens came up with the idea for the Carol during a relative low slump in his career.  It's also true he was facing financial troubles at the time before the inspiration hit him.  However, that is techncally about as far as it went.  Once the idea was excavated out of the soil of Dickens's imagination, he found it surprisingly easy to set down onto the page.  The whole story was written down within a mere six weeks.  It's a feat that comes off as a lot more impressive once your realize that it's probably the same amount of time most writers today need in order to get just a simple short story off the ground.  Also, this was far from the norm for old Boz.  Dickens was a serial novelist for the rest of his life.  That means he wrote his novels for magazines first, before they hit the shelves as books.  It was a deadline driven agenda, and yet it was the one he worked best in.  That way allowed him to take his time in the construction of his plots.  There was more room for backtracking and revising if it seemed like the work in progress was running out of fuel.

A Christmas Carol, on the other hand, was the one great spurt of creative energy that hit him like a kind of psychic flash bang.  It was there in an instant, and waiting to be taken down.  It was as if the words were writing themselves.  It's the sort of once in a lifetime chance that most authors would beg for.  In many ways, you could argue that Dickens just managed to win the luck of the draw, or something like it.  So that's all well and good.  It also doesn't change the fact that none of the actual history matches what Coyle and Nalluri wound up placing on the screen.  What that tells me however is that the entire film is meant to stand as a symbol, rather than an accurate historical account.  Rather than trying to summarize an entire life in a literal fashion (which I'm pretty sure is outside the realm of possibility for even the best director out there) they have instead cast about for just the right sort of fictional account that can also act as a figurative stand-in for the life behind the lie.  In doing so, they seems to have been trying  represent the ultimate nature and achievement of the writer at the heart of their story. 


This is the work and legacy that Bharat Nalluri and Susan Coyle have given themselves the daunting task of tackling within the limited runtime of the movie theater format.  It's a daunting task for even the most professional of filmmakers.  I'm sure even someone like David Lean would have shied away from it.  Perhaps it also helps explain the route that each of the filmmakers eventually decided to take.  They must have known it was impossible to encompass that kind of lifetime achievement in letters in just one movie.  Nor does it make all that much sense to try and capture it all.  Instead, Nalluri and Coyle were handed a godsend in the form of Les Standiford's popular study on the history of one, simple little holiday fable.  In other words, pretty much without meaning to, Standiford gave the filmmakers just the blueprint they needed (perhaps even the only outline anyone could possibly have used) in order to sum up the basic personal truth, and artistic accomplishment of one of the greatest names in literature.

It worked like a charm, as both the reviews and audience response have been overwhelmingly positive.  A lot of the reason for this might be because both writer and director are such good students of docudrama history in their own right.  They seem to have taken all the correct hints from similar films in this sub-genre.  It's never as historically grounded as films like Selma, however it does go in a similar direction by having the narrative focus on a single, defining inflection point in the subject's life, that one instant in time where a real life personality was able to carve a name for themselves in the annals of history, and let that be the main focus of the story.  It seems to have become the smartest go-to formula for the biography film, and this is probably not going to be the last we ever see of it.  


As it stands, Nalluri's film might just be able to take it's place alongside similar examples as the other ones mentioned above.  Like Amadeus it's story owes more to fiction than fact.  And yet it is written in such a way that allows both the filmmakers and the audience to gain a clearer understanding of who Mozart or Dickens were as human beings.  The final part of the movie that deserves a bit of comment has to do with it's title.  It's the sort of thing that will go in one ear and out the other for the average viewer.  English Majors and history buffs, meanwhile, might find themselves pausing afterword to ask a question.  Is the title accurate?  Is there any way in which Dickens can be said to have invented Christmas?  As is usual with any loaded dice question, there's an definitive answer to be had, and it's a long story.

To get the most obvious out of the way, no, of course not.  To claim that the holiday known as Christmas owes its entire existence to the efforts of a pulp magazine author in Great Britain, at the height of the Victorian Age, is asking too much of anyone.  The very notion of Christmas itself is greater, and more complex than just one, modern ink-stained wretch.  To conclude otherwise is an act of patent absurdity.  What is more realistic is to look at the ways that Dickens helped to polish up the Holiday's image.  One of the actual historical details the film includes is the overall response to the idea of setting a fairy tale on or about the Yuletide season.  While Christmas was still celebrated in England during the 1840s, it was nowhere near the year-end juggernaut that it has since become.  Hence the reason for the otherwise puzzling incredulity when modern audiences learn that such a notion had never been entertained before, even if it was just between the covers of a book.  In that sense, Dickens was inadvertently pushing the envelope a bit in trying to set down his little fable.

In doing so, he drew on all the accumulated knowledge that he either knew about the Holiday from personal experience, or from what he was able to glean from the scant amount of scholarship that existed at the time.  This means that in the strictest sense, he was never inventing a new sort of wheel.  All the major elements that decorate the novel where familiar seasonal traditions even in Dickens' time.  What seems to have happened is that the book became such an overnight success, that the quality of its literary display of the Holiday was enough to give it a complete and astonishing shot in the arm.  It was, for all intents and purposes, an advance accomplished through making the old new again.  The fallout from the publication of A Christmas Carol seems to have been a slow buildup of enthusiasm for the spirit of the season over time, until we arrive at a moment where it has become publicly enshrined as an international Holiday across the world.  

Of course it's a mistake to believe that Dickens accomplished this all on his own.  I have called it an advance.  To claim that it amounts to a revolution is a bridge too far.  Instead, it just makes more sense to claim that it is more along the lines of a triumph of spirits, both the human, and the seasonal.  Though I think Standiford's book does a good job of making the case that Dickens was and remains an undoubted helping hand in the whole affair.  He is the one responsible for all of the modern iconography of Christmas.  He's where you get all those displays of quaint little wintery village landscapes with wreaths and holly dotted about the place.  All of it got its biggest (if maybe not its first start) within the pages of Dickens' book.  It was the creation of a pop-culture trope which has gone on to codify the look and feel of the Festival, to the point where it is now the identifying marker for that time of the year in ours minds.  Try not thinking in those terms for a minute in order to see just how true this is.  If you you should ever turn out to be successful, you soon  discover that the very Holiday itself have vanished from your mind.  That is the power and legacy of A Christmas Carol.


The question is how well does the film suggest all this important information?  Or does it even bother to bring it up at all?  Well, if not, then doesn't that make it a failure on some level?  I mean, the title claims that Dickens played a major part in the history of the Holiday, something which is born out by the real historical facts.  So wouldn't the filmmakers be committing a major blunder by failing to acknowledge this important aspect of the story?  The good news is that I don't think that's what happens.  This could just be the part where the script decides to play it smart.  This is where the maxim of "show, don't tell" seems to come into effect.  The script doesn't go the ham-fisted route, and have Dickens constantly going on about how great the Holiday is throughout.  Instead, the closest we ever get is early on, when he's pitching the idea for a Christmas book to Chapman and Hall.  Their rejection of the concept makes writing and publishing the story something of a personal crusade for Dickens.  However, this is the last open statement we, as the audience, ever hear about it out loud.

What the film opts for, in place of a protracted history lesson, is what amounts to an informal scavenger hunt.  As the writing commences on the Carol we see Dickens (often accompanied by the Scrooge that lives in his head) going about the town, and picking up bits and pieces of the broken fragments of the season's iconography as he goes along.  It's hinted that this is something he does almost unconsciously.  His career as a writer has turned his mind into the human equivalent of a sponge, something that's able to soak up and take in any useful bits of information that might help the story at a later date.  It's a process that plays out through the rest of the film, thus allowing the audience to see Dickens rediscover what Christmas is, and what it means on both a personal and public level.  In this way, we are allowed to watch as Dickens, doesn't so much invent as help reestablish the Holiday's reputation.  This is all framed as a journey of self-discovery.  Which I think is also a reflection of historical accuracy, as well.

The result is a film that I can't help think will go on to win it's place alongside the usual list of suspects for this time of year.  It's reception has been almost unanimously positive from both critics and and audiences.  If this enthusiasm is able to hold steady, then there's no reason why this simple fable about a fable shouldn't wind up as the latest edition in a long line of Holiday viewing.  It wouldn't surprise me to find it as part of the a queue of other familiar titles such as Home Alone and The Polar Express.  And yes, it's even possible it can take a place proudly alongside A Christmas Carol itself.  In a way, this just serves to highlight how much of an achievement the film is.  I can't claim to know just what kind of hopes Nalluri and Coyle had for the piece, however I do know that this kind of well-deserved acclaim is a beast of the rarest kind.  Creating a Holiday classic is like trying to bottle lightning.  It's not impossible to harness, yet even the best skill in the business ultimately seems to rely on the luck of the draw.


I think both filmmakers were lucky in a very particular way, here.  They made the smart choice of hitching their wagon to one of the most iconic Yule oriented creations in existence.  However, even this was no guarantee.  If they hadn't been such good storytellers, even their best efforts would floundered at the box office.  That they've succeeded perhaps beyond their own expectations is a testament to the survival of real filmmaking in an age that is slowly being straight-jacketed by denuded franchises and tent poles.  Perhaps that's the rest explanation right there.  A film such as this has no choice except to stand out from the pack when it commits to a clear and true identity of its own.  All of it just goes to make The Man Who Invented Christmas one of the most surprising, yet gratifying recommendations for this Holiday season.  I think the film sums itself up best: "In this season of hope, we will shut out nothing from our firesides and everyone will be welcome. Welcome what has been and what is, and what we hope may be, to this shelter underneath the holly. Happy, happy Christmas to one and all".

2 comments:

  1. Happy Christmas to you and yours!

    Have been wanting to see (and read) this. The Dickens seminar I took in college was, next to the Chaucer one, one of my favorite parts about getting an English Lit degree.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For me, it all started with a copy of "Mickey's Christmas Carol". It's something I've outgrown, though it' also possibly the standard beginner's version of the novel for a lot of folks.

      Actually, come to think of it, it might have really begun with the musical version of Oliver Twist. That's the one with Oliver Reed as Sykes (in a somewhat ironic twist (strangely enough, no pun intended there).

      I can't recall anymore when I figured out that they were both written by the same guy, though it must have been not long before high school, which is were I really got to know the author and the work a whole lot better. That's where I first got acquainted with "Expectations", and he's become a revisit name, off and on, ever since.

      Glad you liked it. I think all those years of English Majoring paid off in an unexpected way here. Those bio-literary details all just sort of came together in the writing. It was like a jigsaw puzzle finally assembled itself in my mind, and I think I've got this movie to thank for it.

      There's this kind of Spielbergian aspect to the whole thing, in that way. Makes you wonder just how much the director and writer share in common, or which other famous scribblers out there share such traits.

      ChrisC

      Delete