The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Strictly speaking, Christmas is an origin story. The Man Who Invented Christmas, however, is not about the kid with superpowers who was born in a barn (apologies to my theology professors) but about the creation of the holiday’s other much beloved story. The film recounts how a young Charles Dickens came to write The Christmas Carol out of desperation more than anything else. The movie is humorous on occasion and sometimes clever in its conceit – his characters follow the writer’s maxim and try to take charge of their own story – but it’s also nowhere near as engaging as even the more tortured adaptations of the popular book.

Dan Stevens plays the author with a slight manic twist. He’s a man whose fevered imagination produces great literary work but that sometimes gets the better of him. After a few failures, he’s in need of a quick hit, something to pay for his pricy home remodel and his three or four kids, with another on the way. He proposes a Christmas story, perhaps Humbug: A Miser’s Lament, a real “hammer-blow to the heart” kind of tale. His publishers are skeptical, not only because Christmas is less than two months away but also because it was still a minor holiday at the time, nothing like the capitalist spectacle it is today.

He forges ahead anyway and cobbles together bits of the London life around him. A wealthy businessman’s unattended funeral forms the story’s backbone while a creaky waiter named Marley finds his way into the plot. Even the trials of Dickens’s own friends and family shape the narrative in the form of an ill-fated engagement and a sickly child. The author gets an assist from his new Irish maid (Anna Murphy) as well, inspiring him with homespun ghost stories and tales from Varney the Vampire.

As the deadline draws closer, Dickens grows more agitated. His characters come alive only to lounge around in his study and peer over his drafts, offering unsolicited advice every now and again. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) proves particularly troublesome. In typical Scrooge fashion, he grumbles at his portrayal and taunts his creator. It’s not just the imaginary that takes ahold of Dickens though. His spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce) appears unannounced, stirring up childhood memories of a boot blackening factory where he worked after the elder Dickens was taken to debtors’ prison.

I understand the appeal of a behind-the-scenes look at A Christmas Carol. Not content to simply enjoy the story, we often want the “making of” special and feature commentary as well. Sometimes the work is enough though, especially when there are hundreds of iterations to choose from. This film never comes close to the drama and emotion of the original story, and it does a better job explaining how the book transformed the holiday than it does inspiring actual feelings of generosity and compassion. It’s a waste of Stevens and Plummer’s talents; Plummer in particular can play this part in his sleep. Though there are some exceptional personalities – Miles Jupp as Dickens’s vexing rival is my favorite – I much prefer going back to the old standbys when the holidays roll around.

Released: 2017
Prod: Robert Mickelson, Ian Sharples, Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Andrew Karpen, Vadim Jean
Dir: Bahrat Nalluri
Writer: Susan Coyne
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Miles Jupp, Anna Murphy
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Choosing Signs (2013)

There’s leaving things to fate and then there’s Jennifer (Jessica Lancaster), a woman who’s so wary about her own decision-making that she lets fate decide almost everything in life. Whether it’s moving from her home in New York to live with her boyfriend in Ireland or which direction she’s headed off to in the morning, Jennifer always needs a little assist. Sometimes that’s flipping a coin and other times it’s slinging a rubber band across the room, whatever’s handy.

It’s extreme, but Choosing Signs is not Serendipity, which is to say it’s not an infuriating case of a woman who fails to seize the moment and then makes a big ado about resetting the chain of events she’s set in motion. This is a quiet film more along the lines of Once and resting somewhere in a space that is romance, comedy, and drama without embracing any one of those.

The story is set in Cork, where Jennifer lives with Marc (Stephen Wyley), a guy with big ideas about how to best exploit the immigrant housing market, and their pregnant Ukrainian housekeeper Svletlana, (Betsy Douds). Her brother, Matty (Jeremiah Ocanas), has mental health issues and stays at a nearby nursing facility, which is how she meets Eamon (Owen Dara), one of his caregivers. Eamon is immediately attracted to Jennifer and wastes no time setting up a date. She’s nice, doesn’t know anyone, and happens to have dinged a bell on her wall when he called, so she agrees to meet up.

A friendship develops by steps, but that doesn’t necessarily bring more stability into her life. If anything, her feelings for Eamon complicates things, adding more variables to her relationship with Matty and Marc. As she juggles her obligations to her brother, she also wrestles with a growing unease over her boyfriend’s plans to subdivide flats into oblivion. Leaving things to fate, it seems, is as much of a gamble as just making a decision and hoping for the best.

The film is far from the silly, magical romp I thought it would be. Lancaster is splendid in this role, emphasizing all her character’s vulnerabilities without making her into an oddball. I’d call Jennifer’s penchant for tossing stones and scarves more of a quirk than anything; it’s enough for others to comment on but not so much of a distraction from the rest of her personality. Writer-director Dara also turns in a charming, low-key performance. Eamon is inviting and of course eager, but he strays from the stereotype of a love-struck loner when necessary. Of the supporting cast, Douds is the strongest, not least because she has the most interesting character in the film. Svletlana knows much more than she lets on, often safeguarding her wisdom and observations behind her flinty stare.

Released: 2013
Dir: Owen Dara
Writer: Owen Dara
Cast: Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremiah Ocanas, Stephen Wyley
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Tara Road

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Maeve Binchy’s novel Tara Road appeared on Oprah’s Book Club list in 1999. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is also on that list, and I know which one I’d rather see adapted for tv and film. (Tom Hiddleston as Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay?!) But Maeve Binchy is a less taxing on the audience and the budget so Tara Road it is.

In typical Lifetime movie of the week fashion, it tells the story of two women who brood over man issues, do something wild, and discover their stronger selves. Irishwoman Ria (Williams) has it all – a husband who looks like Iain Glen, two talented kids, and a plush property. Just when she wants to expand the family, dastardly, duplicitous Danny (Glen) reveals he’s going to leave her for that sexpot from Love Actually (Makatsch).

On the other side of the Atlantic, Marilyn (MacDowell) can’t get over the death of her son from a motorcycle accident. She distances herself from her husband (Zirner) who would rather turn outward to deal with the tragedy. Alienated, alone, trapped by memories of her son, Marilyn does what any woman would do in her situation. She rings up a stranger on the other side of the world and proposes to switch houses with her for a couple months.

Off they go, hoping that new environs will provide some clarity and direction. Each woman is aided by the others’ friends. Ria finds a gaggle of loud and nosy but well-meaning neighbors – they are American, after all – who inject some spontaneity and spirit into her life. Meanwhile, Marilyn eases back into reality through quieter interactions with Ria’s charming friends, including restaurateur Colm, played by Stephen Rea.

And you might be wondering, why is Stephen Rea in this frivolous movie? I suspect if you were a woman who’s loved and lost, you would want his dulcet voice to calm you. He also had the more interesting backstory in Binchy’s novel, but that gets cut, to no ill effect. Another difference for fans of the book is a matter of focus; the movie is better balanced by giving equal screentime to the two stories. At least this way, it’s like two Lifetime movies, and all the feel-good lessons about friendship and self-empowerment, for the price of one. If that’s how you like spending a Saturday evening, this movie’s not a bad deal.

Released: 2005
Prod: Miron Blumental, Noel Pearson, and Sarah Radclyffe
Dir: Gillies MacKinnon
Writer: Cynthia Cidre and Shane Connaughton
Cast: Olivia Williams, Andie MacDowell, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Iain Glen, Stephen Rea, Brenda Fricker, August Zirner, Heike Makatsch, Virginia Cole, Sarah Bolger, Johnny Brennan, Bronagh Gallagher
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2013