Was Charles Dickens truly a literary genius? Or was he just a writer prone to having prefab bits of inspiration fall in his lap? Some Scrooges out there might scoff that that’s the takeaway from “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a fanciful look at the creation of “A Christmas Carol” from director Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”). You’ll likely have a kinder response, albeit with some criticisms.
The PG-rated biopic is sufficiently heavy on whimsy that it imagines its quirky-hunky Dickens (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey”) is himself haunted — by the gestating character of Scrooge (entertainingly cast Christopher Plummer). Yet there’s also a fair amount of darker material, examining the author’s anger over social injustices of the day, as well as his complicated relationship with his fiscally clueless father (Jonathan Pryce). The film’s uninterest in fully committing to either of its opposing tones is a distraction and keeps this modest diversion from being something more.
But, oh, the terrific little details. Take the amusingly chronicled slump Dickens experiences following the enormous success of “Oliver Twist.” (“Barnaby Rudge”? Puh-leeze.) This rough patch leaves him irked enough at his unsupportive publishers that he decides to tackle his idea for a Christmas story independently. It’s Kickstarter, Victorian-style.
Aside from Dickens’s friend and de facto manager, John Forster (Justin Edwards), no one really encourages the project, underwhelmed by its working title of “A Miser’s Lament,” and by the prospects for a holiday tale in general. It’s 1843, the movie reminds us, and Christmas isn’t yet quite the cultural institution we know today. Who but the royal family even buys into the newfangled novelty of having a tree?
Consistently intriguing as all the lit-process tidbits are, the film struggles to mesh footnotes and somber notes. Scenes detailing the author’s concern over child welfare issues and emotional fallout from his father’s time in debtors’ prison are oddly incorporated. And while capably handled, they also aren’t nearly as nuanced as tonally similar ground covered by Ralph Fiennes’s 2013 Dickens biopic, “The Invisible Woman.”
Still, watching Stevens and company, it’s hard to resist the breezy, broadly played appeal of Dickens’s creative epiphanies and tortured brainstorming sessions. Observe as he founders for just the right character name (“Scr . . . antish?”). See him caught between his narrative-mesmerized housemaid (Anna Murphy) and Plummer’s scowling spectral buttinski over how he should handle Tiny Tim’s ultimate fate. God bless him? Amusingly, everyone’s got an opinion.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS
Directed by Bharat Nalluri. Written by Susan Coyne; based onLes Standiford’s book. Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 104 minutes, PG (thematic elements and some mild language).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.