Dan Stevens, left, and Christopher Plummer in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Bleecker Street)

Dan Stevens utterly shines as an eccentric but warmhearted Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas. The family friendly film acts as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol by freely depicting how and why the 1843 novel was written. The movie remains faithful to the writer by creating an utterly Dickensian film. Its populated by wild, peculiar characters and addresses social problems—poverty, children’s and worker’s rights—in a sentimental, melodramatic fashion. What better way to pay homage to Dickens than to mimic his novels and storytelling form?

The film begins with Dickens’s trip to the United States as a world famous and beloved novelist. He’s overwhelmed by the adoration of the audience as the camera swirls and spins around a theater in which he’s speaking and the crowd claps and cheers. Flash forward a few years, Dickens is now utterly destitute, having to take out loan after loan as his house is remodeled and more children are on the way. Also, his last three novels were a total flop. In a desperate attempt, he decides to fund his next novel entirely through his own money after a few disagreements with his publisher. He promises to write a great Christmas novel, even though many tell him that Christmas isn’t a holiday worth writing about.

The action is quick, the wit is sharp, and the film never lets one forget what concerned Dickens. Early on, Dickens is leaving a gala, and he runs into an exceedingly wealthy couple. The old man says he finds Dickens’s novels vulgar and disgusting, simply because they feature characters in poverty, and he goes on to say those kinds of people should be eliminated and boasts how he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and had helped from no one. That is, until his wife says something to the effect, “Yes, except for that rather large estate and shoe factory we inherited from my father,” a witty mockery of right-wing, libertarian thought. Few movies in recent memories include such a blatant critique of self-reliance. Dickens would have approved.

The blue hues that pervade most of the film help to paint a cold, dark London. The film’s darkest moments happen in an abandoned shoe polish factory, in a flashback to Dickens’s childhood when he became his family’s breadwinner. Darker hues emanate the cavernous, musty space. It’s rigid and hostile. Details like these illustrate the powerful moralistic and emotional critique of industry and capital found in Dickens’s novels. What many would think of as places of productivity and wealth, the film depicts as full of darkness, anger, and destruction.

Meanwhile, the fanciful screenplay has Dickens talking to and directing the characters from his emerging work, A Christmas Carol, as he seeks inspiration, even as many of them outright refuse to do what he wants. Talking back to their creator, they mock him and critique what he’s written. At first, it’s just the irascible Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, who inhabits the role with a reserved, deadpan manner and calm demeanor). Soon it’s the entire cast of characters, all of whom have been inspired from Dickens’s life as he relies on the outside world and his loved ones for source material. It’s a joy to see his characters run amok, just as they do in Dickens’s household.

Some of the weaker moments involve Dickens’ own psychological development. The relationship with his father (Jonathan Pryce) feels somewhat forced at times, and it’s not easy to see the connection of Dickens to the miser Scrooge, as the film often suggests. Though one can appreciate that the author is working out his own problems through his character’s stories, the story line often feels overstuffed with ghosts, comic relief, and a prodigal father. (It’s also never clear why Christmas wasn’t as widely celebrated back in the 1840s as it is today. The most we get on the topic are a few lines from Dickens’s publishers and in the epilogue.)

However, with generosity and kindness prevailing, the film is a timely Christmas tale. It’s a beautiful, compassionate film that will surely delight audiences.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri
Written by Susan Coyne, based on The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford
Released by Bleecker Street
Ireland/Canada. 104 min. Rated PG
With Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Simon Callow, and Miriam Margolyes