Here’s a story about Charles Dickens during the the last couple of months of 1843, the period when he wrote “A Christmas Carol,” his most loved book.
The source material is a history that has the same title, but the film includes some imaginative bits — it has been compared to “Shakespeare in Love” — that reward those who are familiar with the story.
The plot is this: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), the superstar author of his day, is strapped for cash after his most recent novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” has not earned out. He’s overextended financially, and he needs money soon.
Dickens hears the name Marley, observes his family’s Irish maid telling his children a Christmas fantasy story, thinks a little and decides to write a book about a Christmas ghost. He tells his publishers it will be a comedy. For this he is all but laughed out of the room.
Even his boon friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards), is skeptical. “Why throw everything away over a minor holiday?” he asks. (The thesis of the source book is that “A Christmas Carol” changed the way the holiday was viewed, imbuing it with themes of generosity and kindness.)
With a six-week deadline, Dickens sets to work, drawing inspiration from everything around him. He meets or imagines his lead character, later named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), at a dismal funeral and asks the dour man a few questions.
“What do you think of children?”
A pause ensues, and then comes the answer: “Humbug.”
From then on, Dickens’ imagined Scrooge walks with him. Other characters emerge, drawn from and played by the same actors as Dickens’ relatives and friends. (Think of the buddies Dorothy meets on the yellow brick road.) They join the troupe in Dickens’ head and, in the movie’s telling, in his office.
As his deadline nears, Dickens is frustrated by family interruptions, consumed by unpleasant childhood memories and puzzled as to how to end his book. This is not suspenseful because we know how the story ends, but its resolution is enlarged by the suggestion that every one of us may have a bit of an inner Scrooge who could use reforming.
I liked the movie. Go see it with children over the age of eight who know the the story. Take your parents too. You’ll all have a good time.
Audiences generally like this movie, but there are Ebenezers out there too. The main critical complaints are that the story is saccharine and too much like a TV movie. I didn’t find the film cloying, and I did like the energy Stevens brought to the Dickens role. (Plummer also does an excellent Scrooge, and the script and directing are crisp.) To be fair, though, we are bombarded with months of Christmas promotions every year, and there may be fatigue with the Dickens story and lines like, “God bless us, every one.”
One trailer before the film, about a cartoon or CGI piece called, “Sherlock Gnomes,” looked pretty bad. The Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes, and the gnomes are those kitschy garden figures. The target demo seems to be young viewers, and the result may be a mashup of saccharine and pop-culture cynicism. Two moments from the preview: A gnome saying, “No ship, Sherlock,” and a gnome twerking in a mankini. Kids deserve better.