This is one distractingly made film. I ain’t sure why it turned out that way, the creatives have a fair deal of prestige behind them. At the very least they’ve been able to make things look convincing in the past. Maybe it’s their attempts at whimsy that at the root of the problem, their storybook depiction of Victorian London is so packed with detail that in the film’s wide angle lensing they feel more claustrophobic than charming. The classicism of the film’s blocking and measured editing rhythms is completely at odds with the decision to shoot everything on this nervous handheld camera.
I think they wanted it to look like something shot by Janusz Kaminski, or at least something that captured that Spielberg feel. They end up falling far off from the desired mark. The amount of light they pour into every scene kills all interest in their images. Characters in their brown suits and brown rooms become lost in the frame, or they’ll be in close ups so aggressively keylit that they barely seem to be inhabiting the same space. And the difference of style between that which is shot on set compared to location is wild, nothing feels like it’s happening in a coherent world.
But then there’s a Mad Max: Fury Road style speedramp on a shot of a character putting down a plate of food. Then there’s these dialogues played out in a single master but they’re never sure who the focus should be on, so it just racks pathetically back and forth to whoever’s talking. There’s this one time where it starts to pull, then the actor finishes their line before they’re even in focus; so halfway the camera changes its mind and quickly pulls on back to the first guy. I mean, these little things stack up and are fun to talk about but ultimately this movie looks like a confused mess.
Which ties in nicely with the story. It’s promising enough, the story of the publication of a Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. The six week deadline he gave himself to compose the manuscript in time for printing, his decision to self-publish when no respectable company would give the idea the time of day. The rising familial tensions between him, his beleaguered wife, parents and serving staff. And throughout the process he is visited by his characters in a sort of postmodern interrogation that mirrors the plot of the book.
There’s a lot going on and the script and film don’t know how to tie them together cohesively. The procedural work involved is dry and routine, the familial strife, spousal abandonment, addiction, is high drama and the film’s conception of this writing process is pure farce. I suppose it wants to be a sort of Shakespeare In Love for Dickens as it produces his life into something parallel to his most famous story. Who is Dickens? Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Scrooge himself, perhaps even all three?
There’s something about the clumsy anatomisation of human life here which feels so reductive. Other narratives have made the conceit work fine but they aren’t so tortured, here the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future arrive to force Scrooge and Dickens to encounter their reality. A lot is made of little Charlie’s youth in the workhouse, paying off his father’s debts. We get a short look at the family he works so hard to distance himself from, and the serving staff he commands. His future is left totally unexamined.
It does not matter to this film that the sales of the book disappointed Dickens, nor does it matter that he would continue to alienate his wife and family and ended his life out of contact with them all. It wants to be charming and whimsical. To portray happiness, healthiness and success, but it ignores the disease that is at the centre of all Dicken’s work.
The workhouse is a fantasy here. It looms closed and derelict over proceedings like a torpid spectre, when we see inside it may as well be a dream. The poverty and the cruelty of life have no place in this film, and when Scrooge is forced to confront his ultimate failings we do not see Charles with him, Charles gets to bask in his success. Like how, for all the horror it reserves for child labour, it seems to forget its principles when depicting the relationship between the man and a child house maid. She serves him at her privilege, there is no thought for the internality of her life.
But look at so much of the leading cast: Christopher Plummer (who makes a brilliant Scrooge when they let him be one), Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Justin Edwards. It’s a film about old men doing old men things. Even Dan Steven’s studied prancing can’t elevate it from the fact that the drama is stiff and aged. There’s a reason why the best Christmas Carol for kids is the Muppets one, it’s the fun one.
This one isn’t even when it’s trying its hardest. It is constrained by a terminal lack of budget and vision. I can see this on the stage, you’d never get it produced, it’s panto season right now, but it would work. Change the scale, make it personal, imbue it with that specific liveness of the stage. I can see it in my mind so clear.
Maybe there was a good film in the idea, at one point. It never made it out.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is currently screening in UK cinemas