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Great Dickens

by David Lamble

In the trailer for his latest screen turn, "The Man Who Invented Christmas," the now-88-year-old Christopher Plummer, the movie's Ebenezer Scrooge, ends his pitch with the old miser's signature response to anybody who might cause him to spend an extra shilling on foolish nonsense: "Bah humbug!"

This latest attempt to explain why Christmas should matter to persons of all faiths, including non-believers like Yours Truly, begins with the plight of a once-popular writer. Charles John Huffam Dickens is 31, in debt, and facing a vexing case of writer's block following poor sales for his last three novels. This youthful, handsome Dickens (British actor Dan Stevens, known for the 2006 gay UK TV series "The Line of Beauty") has a wife, young children, and painful memories of having been forced as a child to work in a filthy bootblacking factory due to his father's (Jonathan Pryce) spendthrift ways. The time is late Fall 1843. Six weeks before Christmas, it occurs to this desperate man that a short Christmas-themed novella might sell. Maybe even a Christmas Eve ghost story.

"TMWIC" (opening Friday at Embarcadero Cinemas) forces Americans to acknowledge the debt we owe our English cousins from the Victorian era for the trappings of this most commercial of holidays. The filmmakers contend that the Christmas we celebrate emerged from the characters Dickens hatched during a time of great personal stress: Scrooge, Marley, and Tiny Tim.

Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne created this holiday treat based on the book of the same name by Les Standiford. The film is about the creative process by which a nimble fiction-writer like Dickens, author of 20 novels, can bring characters to life on the page who remind him of people he knows and may dislike for reasons profound or petty.

"TMWIC" will not be everyone's Christmas eggnog treat. Stevens brings a slightly waspish quality to his Dickens that makes Plummer's Scrooge seem cheerful in comparison. His irritable demeanor does allow us to grasp just how hard it is to author even an inferior work. I would have preferred James McAvoy in the role, for his ability to project charming qualities in even the most churlish characters. But the movie features deft supporting turns from the best of Britain's theater-trained film actors. Supporting Stevens' Dickens and Plummer's Scrooge are Simon Callow as Leech, an illustrator who's sure he can't finish this complicated work under Dickens' tight deadline; Donald Sumpter as Scrooge's partner, five years dead; Bill Paterson as Mr. Grimsby; and Anna Murphy as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

When Dickens died in 1870, he couldn't have imagined that his stories would live on in motion pictures. For all its flaws, "TMWIC" joins a flood of Dickens on film that would melt the heart of the meanest miser. With its lovely production values, the new film is best seen in large-screen format. Follow it up with a DVD/Blu-Ray of the 1951 British "A Christmas Carol" with Alastair Sim.

Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in "The Man Who Invented Christmas." Photo: Bleecker Street Media

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