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Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Laurie’

I think most people would have been surprised, for the vast majority of the last quarter-century or so, to learn that Armando Ianucci would be directing an adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel. It’s only comparatively recently that Ianucci started directing films at all, with 2009’s In the Loop: before that he was best known as a writer, producer, and occasional performer of comedy and satire. The words ‘glittering career’ do not seem inappropriate, given he was involved in On the Hour and The Day Today, the early years of Alan Partridge, bringing Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to the BBC, and much else besides. Since becoming a film director, however, his philosophy seems to have been to pick the most surprising projects he can think of – the title of his last film, The Death of Stalin, didn’t exactly scream comic potential, but it turned out to be one of the best black comedies of recent years.

Now, the question is, can he find the funny in Charles Dickens to the same extent? Is he even going to try? The film in question is The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on the book of (roughly) the same name. Now, I’m going to own up to the fact that while in recent years I have come to appreciate and enjoy the very real merits of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Jane Austen and Wilkie Collins, I have never actually read a Dickens novel in my life. Yes, yes, I know. So when I tell you that David Copperfield was apparently Dickens’ favourite of his own works, probably because it was semi-autobiographical, you can just thank Wikipedia – pretty much the extent of my exposure to the story has come from watching dear old Barry and Terrance’s BBC TV adaptation over thirty years ago.

As the title perhaps suggests, the film concerns the life of David Copperfield, a young man growing up in the mid-Victorian period. He is played for most of the film by Dev Patel. His father dies before he is born, but his early years with his mother are happy ones; then she re-marries to a hard and stern man, and David is eventually sent to London to earn his keep working in a factory. Here he meets the impecunious but eternally optimistic Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his wife. Eventually he learns of his mother’s death and, rebelling against his treatment, seeks out his sole remaining relative, his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives near Dover with her own distant relative, the amiable but eccentric Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie).

The story goes on in a roughly similar vein for most of the film – it came as no surprise to me to learn that Dickens apparently had no particular structure planned out in advance for the story when he wrote it. This is a substantially trimmed-down version of the plot of the book, with various characters and plotlines wholly or partly excised, but it still feels discursive and picaresque. Characters appear and reappear, and everyone seems to know each other in the most suspiciously convenient way. To be honest, though, the pleasure of the film – which is considerable – does not come from the plot, but from the performances and direction.

The most instantly noticeable thing about The Personal History of David Copperfield is that – well, he is Asian (Dev Patel’s background is somewhat complex, but his family is Gujarati Hindu). Agnes Wickfield is played by Rosalind Eleazar, who is Black; her father is played by Benedict Wong, whose family is originally from Hong Kong. The world being as it is, I am picking my words with some care, but: I always find myself a little bemused, at best, by the current tendency towards ethnically-diverse casts even when it is inappropriate for the period being depicted. If you are doing a contemporary or futuristic drama, then obviously it is absolutely laudable and correct to include performers from a wide range of backgrounds. I am likewise aware that, historically, the UK at least was somewhat more diverse than it has traditionally been depicted as in films and TV.

Neither of these things changes the fact that when I’m watching a film like Mary, Queen of Scots and a character like Bess of Hardwick is unexpectedly Chinese, it kicks me out of the story. I’m not sure what this achieves beyond creating a false image of the past, where it is like an idealised version of the present. Are the casting choices in David Copperfield therefore a problem? (I have already been asked if the new film is ‘a send up’, because of Dev Patel’s involvement.) Well, definitely not if you’re not someone who worries about this sort of thing in the first place, and not for me, either, because it seems very much of a piece with the rest of the film either. There are bold and interesting creative choices going on throughout: the film starts with Copperfield about to deliver a reading of his life story to a theatre audience, and the painted backdrop falls away to allow him to walk into his own past, where he appears as narrator alongside the characters and his younger self. In addition to being clever and inventive, this makes it clear the film is not affecting to present a naturalistic version of Victorian England, but a staged, mediated one. In this context, the ethnicity of the characters doesn’t really matter.

In any case, you can hardly accuse Dickens of studied naturalism. His characters are big and memorable ones, which demand a more heroic style of performance – and Ianucci has certainly found performers capable of delivering what is required. There are big comic turns from Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie in particular; Ben Whishaw plays Uriah Heep, and if I have a criticism of Ianucci’s adaptation of the novel it’s that this character and his plotline seems a bit too marginalised – it seems to me that there is potential for depth and pathos here which goes untapped, as it is suggested that it’s Heep’s desperate desire to climb socially which is what turns him into such a sour individual.

One of the impressive things about the film is that despite the fact it is largely pitched as – and has been marketed as – a comedy film, you do come away from it with a strong sense of more serious themes having been addressed. Social mobility is one of them – ‘rags to riches’ being just another way of describing a change of position in society – with class also being a significant element, along with the issue of poverty. The salvation of all the characters proves to be the strength of the affection binding them together, and the film does have a wonderful warmth and feeling of camaraderie suffusing it.

I’m not sure this really qualifies as one of the great literary adaptations of recent years, for the plot does feel like a bit of an afterthought and the more serious elements of the story have arguably been a bit neglected in favour of the lighter scenes. But it is an immensely likeable film, filled with fine performances and made with ceaseless wit and invention, and containing just enough seriousness to give it proper heft. A funny and sincere movie.

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I stopped watching the news on May 8th 2015, a bit over two weeks ago. Since then I haven’t watched a single TV bulletin, nor any breakfast television, nor even a topical comedy programme. I haven’t intentionally looked at a newspaper or visited a general news website. If I’ve been sitting on a bus or in a taxi and the news has come on the radio, there has been some discreet humming and putting of fingers in ears. What has occasioned all this? Well, the news promised nothing but grimness and despair, and I couldn’t face the prospect of feeling angry about things that were beyond my power to influence. I couldn’t stop caring so I just stopped looking. I wonder how many other people have found themselves in a similar position.

This sense of helplessness and resignation as far as the future is concerned is at the heart of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (trading under the not-at-all unwieldy title of Disney Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in some territories), a movie which I am tempted to describe as a technological fantasy rather than actual science fiction. This film is, in a very real sense, actually about the future as an idea (rather than just being a convenient setting) – how we view it, how we respond to it, and how we shape it.

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At its heart is the fundamental disconnection between futurist views of the early 20th century, right up until about 1970, in which everything was chromium-plated and shiny, rocket-buses to the moon departed on an hourly basis, and so on – a Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke, Gerry Anderson vision of benevolent technocracy. But these days, of course, think of the future and your mind fills with images of urban decay, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, viral apocalypse, and the general collapse of civilisation as we know it. What happened? When did everyone decide the world was inevitably just going to get worse and worse?

Tomorrowland comes up with a fictional answer to this question. This film has managed to make it to UK screens with a minimum of advance publicity, possibly because it’s one of the few major releases this summer that isn’t a sequel, remake, or reboot (or it may just be that all the coverage has been in those news programmes I’ve stopped watching), and I found that going in relatively ignorant of what to expect added somewhat to the experience. In any case, this is a ferociously intelligent film which handles a complex story with great confidence and skill, and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy capsule review.

In the movie, Tomorrowland is the place where the future is made, a colony of scientists, artists, and other great thinkers. It is the kind of glittering metropolis, filled with monorails, jet-packers and robots, that has been part of our collective consciousness since the movie of the same name, and the nature of its relationship to the ‘real’ world of the movie is something I am not inclined to spoil. However, something is rotten in the state of the future, and it has grave implications for the real world as well.

Discovering all this is Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright teenage girl who spends her time trying to sabotage the demolition of old NASA launch platforms. She discovers a mysterious pin-badge which gives her visions of Tomorrowland, and it eventually leads her to reclusive mad scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile from the place who knows its dark secret. Together they set out on a journey that will take them back into Tomorrowland and lead to a confrontation with its governor, Nix (Hugh Laurie)…

Well, let’s get the mouse in the room out of the way first: yes, Tomorrowland is an element of the Disneyland theme park, and yes, the Tomorrowland of the movie does bear something of a resemblance to it – but, thankfully, this doesn’t really come across as an extended commercial for the Disney corporation’s holiday resorts. (In fact, references to Disney’s ownership of the Star Wars IP seem much more obtrusive – there’s an action sequence in a comic store where Star Wars collectibles are just a bit too prominent.)

This film is too angry to be a commercial, anyway. Well, perhaps angry isn’t quite the right word. Possibly ‘committed’ is better, or ‘passionate’. On one level the film tells a fairly familiar story, that of a ‘gifted’ person who makes the breakthrough from the ‘real’ world into a hidden one of mystery and adventure – think of the first Men in Black or The Matrix – the difference here being that the hidden world draws most of its cues from classic Golden Age science fiction. There are ray guns, jet packs, rocket ships and androids galore, not to mention a minor character named after Hugo Gernsback (the inventor of the name ‘science fiction’, amongst many other significant achievements).

All of this is basically just eye candy, however, surrounding the film’s central thesis, which concerns our expectations of the future and responsibility towards it. I hesitate to say that Tomorrowland is, on some level, Interstellar for a family audience, but the two films both treat the manned space programme as a totemic symbol of human ambition and optimism, and its decline as a damning indictment of society’s lack of self-belief. Tomorrowland is certainly scathing in its analysis of what’s gone wrong: giving in to despair is easier than taking responsibility for making something better. (At this point I found myself in the odd position of agreeing with the film even as it felt like it was having a go at me personally.) You can’t fault Tomorrowland‘s idealism, optimism, or commitment to its ideas.

Unfortunately, great and worthy┬áideas don’t necessarily make for a great and worthwhile movie, even when coupled to visuals as lavish and inventive as Bird has come up with here. The key question one has to ask is this: who is this film made for? Because I fear it will struggle to find an audience: for all that the script and performances are filled with wit and intelligence, it still feels a bit too dry and preachy to really appeal to a young audience, while adults may find it a bit, well, juvenile. Those in between will probably conclude that it’s just not cool to care any more. Too often Tomorrowland feels like it’s been written to service a theme, rather than characters or story – it’s a slightly too obvious parable, rather than a piece of entertainment with a message.

This is the main problem, next to which a few minor ones are less significant: the structure feels odd, with the actual breakthrough into the hidden world not really happening in earnest until the final act, while there is at least one major special-effects set piece that feels crowbarred in – and, more seriously, it’s strangely joyless when it should be enchanting and stirring.

Then again, that’s probably Tomorrowland in a nutshell – it’s so concerned with imploring the audience to be more hopeful and positive that it ends up being a lot less fun than it could have been. I rather imagine this is one of those films that won’t make much of an impact on the box office on its original release, but will be rediscovered and hailed as a laudable, flawed masterpiece in a few years time. There’s certainly very little wrong with its technical achievement, nor with its intentions. It’s just that the actual story isn’t quite up to the same standard as either, and in the end the story is the most important thing.

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