THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Anna Murphy is Tara, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

watch the trailer:

 

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WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)

March 31, 2015

woman in gold Greetings again from the darkness. The responsibility of the filmmaker when the project is “based on a true story” is elevated when the story has significant historical relevance and blends such elements as art, identity, justice and international law. Add to those the quest of a remarkable woman whose family was ripped apart by Nazi insurgents, and more than a history lesson, it becomes a poignant personal story.

Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, the woman who emigrated to the United States by fleeing her Austrian homeland during World War II, and leaving behind her beloved family and all possessions. After the death of her sister, Ms. Altmann becomes aware of the family artwork stolen by the Nazi’s during the invasion. This is not just any artwork, but multiple pieces from famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt … including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. See, Adele was Maria’s aunt, and the stunning piece (with gold leaf accents) has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”, while hanging for decades in the state gallery.

The story revolves around Maria’s partnering with family friend and upstart attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to take on the nation of Austria and reclaim the (extremely valuable) artwork that was seized illegally so many years ago. They are aided in their mission by an Austrian journalist (played by Daniel Bruhl) who is fighting his own demons. The seven-plus year legal saga is condensed for the big screen and we follow Maria and Randol as they meet with the Austrian art reclamation committee, a federal judge (played by the director’s wife Elizabeth McGovern), the U.S. Supreme Court (Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice), and finally a mediation committee back in Austria. But this is not really a courtroom drama … it’s a personal quest for justice and search for identity. What role does family roots and history play in determining who we are today? It’s the age old question of past vs. present, only this is seen through the eyes of a woman who has survived what most of us can only imagine.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) uses startling flashbacks (with Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria) to provide glimpses of Maria’s childhood through her marriage and subsequent escape. We get to know her family, including some scenes featuring Aunt Adele (Antje Traue), and Maria’s father and uncle (Henry Goodman, Allan Corduner). We understand this family’s place in society and just how dramatically they were impacted by the Nazi takeover.

Helen Mirren delivers yet another exceptional performance and manages to pull off the snappy lines without an ounce of schmaltz, while also capturing the emotional turmoil Ms. Altmann endures. Director Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell round off some of the rough edges and inject enough humor to prevent this from being the gut-wrenching process it probably was in real life. This approach makes the film, the story and the characters more relatable for most movie goers … and it’s quite an enjoyable look at a fascinating woman and a pretty remarkable underdog story.

watch the trailer: