Once upon a time, a woman at a party who learned I was a film critic crossed the crowded room and asked, "From whence do you get your inspiration?" So OK, she didn't really say "whence." But anyway, I was a bit flummoxed and, making it as clear as I could, answered, "Well, I see the movie that I intend to review."
That said, I belatedly thank her for the entrée to my review of "The Man Who Invented Christmas," director Bharat Nalluri's long-winded treatise on the alleged torment Charles Dickens suffered trying to conjure inspiration for "A Christmas Carol."
While Nalluri's mini biopic/fantasy may or may not be based on fact, I know that, personally, I don't particularly enjoy watching a fellow tradesman, especially one I hold in such high esteem, anguishing so desperately. But even being a bit less subjective, it behooves noting that the screenplay by Susan Coyne, based on the book by Les Standiford, froths with the clichés generally paraded out when the subject concerns the agony and ecstasy of artistic creation.
You know the drill. The artist, perhaps Schumann or Shubert, or any of those olden day longhairs, is stuck for a melody. So, to temporarily escape the rigors of being a musical genius, he and his sweetie take a carriage ride into the country. Happily, and most serendipitously, only a little way into the pastoral retreat our composer hears a bird in a tree issue a stirring trill. "That's it!" he exclaims, the basis of his next symphony — the one that'll make him financially independent. Now he and Ilsa can be wed. I only hope he invites the bird to the wedding.
Nalluri's take on the creative process amps up that dramatic platitude to the degree that nary a line of "A Christmas Carol" seems to have originated from good old Charlie himself, but rather, from the story within a story that wraps itself around the plot like ivy around a tree.
In the fall of 1843, hard put to write a literary hit after three commercial failures, Mr. Dickens frets. He's accustomed to a rather privileged lifestyle, has a gaggle of kids to feed, and yet hasn't the heart to ask his wife to economize. Has the muse forsaken him? Shh. Don't say "writer's block."
But not to worry. I need a movie to review this week, and Charles Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, must continue pursuing one of the finest literary careers in history. Thus, no sooner than you can say Tiny Tim, the celebrated scribe rolls up his sleeves and adjusts his brain to allow any and every possible circumstance and entity around him to serve as the root and origin of the book that will foreseeably right his belletristic ship. Never mind that he has no working title, let alone a subject.
Once that old miser who he overhears ranting about decreasing the surplus population becomes his Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), everything else follows. Soon, he imagines the entire dramatis personae of what will become "A Christmas Carol" making themselves at home in his study, each lobbying for a proper part in his creation. It gets quite homey, their intrusive but
well-meaning counsel not too unlike the support Marion and George Kirby tendered Cosmo Topper.
It's kind of cute for a while, the hyperactive author dashing back and forth from the realities of his household to the phantoms and spirits suggesting their ideas for the novel that he has promised his publisher will be ready for print just before Christmas. We muse, "Oh, so that's where that character came from. And here's how he got that idea." On and on it goes ad nauseam
until the billions of mental pixels coalesce into a leather bound copy of "A Christmas Carol," the epiphanic tale essentially mirroring the moral lessons Dickens learns along with Ebenezer.
I don't think I'd like a bunch of apparitions rummaging around in my writing cave, offering their two cents, not that I couldn't use the help. Shamefully, my own notion of how the creative process works is fraught with far more supernatural illusions, which egotistically attribute artistic talent to some spiritual gift over which the writer has little say. Whereas in this film, the fantasy is that creativity can be engineered, albeit cobbled together by imaginary souls. Fact is, if anyone could unearth the secret of imagination, they'd be knocking out those best sellers like sausages.
Granted, director Nalluri's film does a decent enough job of establishing time and place, replete with the usual atmospheric images of Victorian England, good, bad and terrible. But by parsing and dissecting "A Christmas Carol" according to which specter inspired what, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" inadvertently implies that Mr. Dickens had his book ghostwritten.
"The Man Who Invented Christmas," rated PG, is a Bleecker Street Media release directed by Bharat Nalluri and stars Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Pryce. Running time: 104 minutes
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