Friday, 8 December 2017

"The Man who Invented Christmas": a film review

I must say I was seriously predisposed to like this film from the minute I first head about it.

After all, I'm a serious Christmas tragic, and I'm a serious 19th Century nerd on top of that.  And this movie is about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol.  Let's get personal for a minute.  I collect DVDs of film versions of a Christmas Carol.  I even wrote an adult study guide on A Christmas Carol.  I was seriously predisposed to like this flick.  It's a Scroogefest, in the best sense of the term.  For me, what's not to like about this film? 

The film was about the struggles experienced by Charles Dickens in writing A Christmas Carol toward the end of a long - and uncreative - dry spell following the phenominal success of Oliver Twist.  Dickens was played by Dan Stevens, better known as "Cousin Matthew" from the series Downton Abbey, whose character's death in a motor vehicle accident was the single closest time the series ever came to "jumping the shark".

There is a strong supporting cast including Christopher Plummer (Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music), Miriam Margolyes (Aunt Prudence in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries), and Ian MacNeice (Bert Large in Doc Martin). 

But, even with all these veteran actors, the strong moral centre of the film is provided by the relative newcomer Anna Murphy, playing Tara, the Dickens family's teenage Irish housemaid, who functioned throughout the film as Dickens's conscience.  In this film, it is Tara who convinced Dickens not to let Tiny Tim die at the end, as he did "with poor Little Nell" in The Old Curiosity Shop.  (For those interested in a work of fiction in which Dickens's Tiny Tim as an adult is a minor character, you may be interested in my recent "counterfactual" The Better Angels of our Nature.)

Being a good 19th Century nerd, I have to point out at least one historical anachronism, and the only one I found in the film was an absolute doozy.  In the opening scenes, during one of Dickens's lecture tours of the United States, a band in a theatre in New York City in 1842 was playing a song that wasn't written until 1904.  This is the sort of moment in a film that any sort of history nerd just dreams of.

Nevertheless, this is a brilliant film.  It shows the ups and downs of the creative process experienced by any writer (or anyone else involved in the creative arts). 

It also shows the real role played by Dickens in reinventing the celebration of Christmas in the English-speaking world.  A Christmas Carol had the impact of drawing a link between the specifically Christian and the generally festive aspects of Christmas, at a time when the Christmas celebration had been neglected among English speaking people (ever since the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell two centuries before). 

The fact that the link drawn by Dickens between the spiritual and festive dimensions of Christmas also had a strong sense of universal philanthropy and moral/ethical transformation has given us the Christmas that we celebrate today.  Thinking of the Christmas we celebrate today, Charles Dickens was truly "The Man Who Invented Christmas", and we'd all be poorer (morally, ethically, culturally, and spiritually) without his efforts.

You don't have to be either a Christmas tragic or a 19th Century nerd to enjoy this film.  In the words of "Molly" Meldrum, "Do yourself a favour."  See this film.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.