The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)

CHRISTMAS has spawned many festive films over the years, not least versions of Charles Dickens’s classic tale of humbug redeemed, A Christmas Carol. But there’s something exuberantly different about this addition to the Yule schedules, which goes behind the scenes to suggest how Dickens came to write his book and pretty much invent the festive season as we know it.

The slim novel came at a crucial stage in the Victorian writer’s career. In 1842 Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a literary superstar, riding the success of Oliver Twist. Sixteen months and three flops later, however, he has plummeted back to Earth, broke, with a growing family to feed and writer’s block.

Like any author, his antennae are ever alert to stimulation. His interest is piqued when the family nanny tells bedtime stories to his children, involving strange spirits, and further when a businessman dismisses London’s poor with a "bah, humbug". He has the germ of an idea. But when he proposes a Christmas-themed novel to his publisher, the reply is: “Does anyone really celebrate it any more?”

More to the point, with Christmas only six weeks away, there seems no time to capitalise. Desperate, Dickens decides to write and publish the book himself. But while he has his theme, he still doesn’t have his story.

This has much in common with Shakespeare In Love, the Oscar-winning yarn about Shakespeare’s writing of Romeo And Juliet. There’s the genius in a creative rut and with creditors on his tail, whose life will inspire the fictional masterpiece. There’s the comedy of Shakespeare’s early title for his new play, Romeo And Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter, and Dickens’s Humbug, A Miser’s Lament. In both films, the images of pen and ink are ever-present.

But whereas Shakespeare In Love was a purely imagined romantic comedy, this has more than a grain of truth about it. Adapted from the non-fiction book by historian and author Les Standiford, the film’s depiction of the writer’s financial worries is based on fact; and it is poverty – the memory of it, and the fear of its return – that eventually informs Dickens’s imagination.

Adaptor Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri adeptly balance the tone of the film between its dark social context and the light-hearted race to the book’s completion. The first is manifest in Dickens’s bad dreams and the unwelcome appearance in London of his father (Jonathan Pryce), whose time in the workhouse still weighs heavily on the writer. The comedy derives largely from Stevens, continuing his smart transition from Downton Abbey heartthrob, who plays Dickens as if he were a character in one of his own novels – wide-eyed and flouncy-haired, hands gesticulating wildly, frequently talking aloud to his imagined characters.

One of those characters is his miser. “Get the name right and the character will appear,” Dickens asserts to himself, running through some comic variations until Scrooge stands before him. Christopher Plummer offers the perfect embodiment for this film – stern-looking and irascible, yet with a wry glint in his eye as he determines to make his creator’s life difficult. “I’m the author here,” bemoans Dickens at one point, to which Scrooge replies: “Allegedly.”

The hard slog of writing is nicely presented as a war of attrition between the obsessed author and his large, noisy family. If at times the tone feels too cute, that can be forgiven. After all, the suggestion that Dickens was prepared to let Tiny Tim die underlines the fact that his eventual happy ending – and the message that there can be no Christmas without hope – is what makes his work endure.