Throughout The Man Who Invented Christmas, an altogether warm, sharp, and unobjectionable family holiday film, a raven flits in and out of the frame. It is introduced as an inexplicable present to Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) by his father, John (Jonathan Pryce), but it escapes its cage and dashes a chandelier to the ground, and Charles’s housekeeper declares it a sign of bad luck. It turns out to be a false omen, at least for the Dickens household; the film’s main obstacle, that of writing and selling A Christmas Carol, turns out fine. (Spoiler alert?) But the raven endures to the end, perched above Hatchards bookshop in London on Christmas Eve, as dozens line up in the snow to purchase the season’s biggest blockbuster.
I have no idea why this raven is there, though it does evoke the raven in the savings-and-loan scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 20th-century American answer to Dickens’s 19th-century classic. The Man Who Invented Christmas, like The Christmas Carol and all stories indebted to it, continues to shore up the idea of Christmas as a secular holiday devoted to the idea of generosity, charity, and a life devoted to lightening the burdens of others. A Christmas Carol would probably get branded as communist propaganda if it were published in 2017, as Capra’s film did in 1946. The Man Who Invented Christmas is at least savvy enough to depict its hero’s salvation at a place of retail, the comforting ding of an old-timey till ushering us off to the credits.
I’m probably too much of an old humbug to be the intended audience, but it’s easy to imagine younger viewers being enchanted by Bharat Nalluri’s storybook-British, behind-the-scenes tale, which if nothing else makes the act of creating fiction look like the most exciting occupation a person could aspire to. This is no easy task, considering how many “author movies” never quite sell the spark of inspiration. As Dickens, Stevens is a restless soul with childlike intuition trapped in an adult’s body, desperate to write a hit to make up for his Martin Chuzzlewit–era career slump. Inspiration comes to him from a series of dispiriting meetings with the various old men to whom he owes debts, and as soon as he dreams up the name “Scrooge,” the old miser appears to him quite literally, in the form of the impeccably cast Christopher Plummer.
Dickens’s “conversations” with Scrooge lead him to the rest of the story and all its various ghosts, and the question of whether or not such a miserable man could ever change. (Unfortunately for Tiny Tim, the original story apparently did not have a happy ending, much to the objection of his test audiences.) As he deals with money problems and family problems and all the various leeches knocking at his door, Dickens begins to realize that there’s more of him in his main character than he imagined. The “inventing of Christmas” is more of an afterthought; only when he imagines Scrooge’s redemption can he write a hit book, forgive his parents for their past neglect, rehire the help he fired in a creative fury, and buy one of those newfangled Tannenbaums they were nuts for in Germany. One hates to think what fate would have befallen our beloved winter holiday season if Dickens hadn’t moved all those units.