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Posts Tagged ‘identity politics’

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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People seem to easily forget that the word ‘is’ is different from the word ‘should’. If we choose to redress the sexual differences between the minds of men and women through policy, we are going against nature, but no more than when we outlaw murder. But we should be clear that we are redressing a difference, not discovering [that men and women are innately identical by nature]. Wishful thinking that they are the same will be mere propaganda and no favour to either sex.

We seem to be going through one of those periods in which the question of what it means to be a human is rather up for debate. Normally I’d be quite encouraged by any tendency for people to actually discuss big topics, but the current circumstances are, to say the least, dismaying: ever since the initial revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which as I write must have been nearly a month ago, there has been a ripple effect throughout every level of society – mostly taking in actors and politicians, so far, but I’m sure it has every possibility of spreading into other areas, too.

The composite picture of the masculine human created by the recent revelations is not one likely to make one feel proud of being in possession of XY chromosomes. Men are, it would seem, basically unpleasant pieces of work (when it comes to their relationships with women, anyway), and unaware of the fact of their own unpleasantness. What’s wrong with us? How did we get this way? Are we just stuck in the past, following the principles of a male-oriented chauvinistic society, something best consigned to the bin of history?

Hmmm. As it happened, I spent the last month or so reading Matt Ridley’s 1993 book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, and despite the fact that the book is two decades old, I was repeatedly struck by how pertinent it was to the current discussions – also by the fact that so few of the book’s ideas seem to have entered the popular consciousness, despite the fact they seem eminently logical and reasonable.

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But then I am perhaps biased: I have thought for many years that our behaviour as humans is influenced by elements of our evolutionary history that we are reluctant, to say the least, to acknowledge, and that there is little prospect of widespread social happiness until we achieve some kind of accomodation with our biology and instincts.

Ridley’s thesis runs more or less as follows – humans do not occupy a special or privileged position in the world; we are the products of evolutionary processes every bit as much as chimpanzees or elephant seals or peacocks are. This extends to our social behaviour, and particularly our sexual behaviour. As evolution is solely influenced by the transmission of genes via sexual reproduction, it follows that sex is likely to have been strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures. Ridley argues that it is impossible to make sense of human behaviour without accepting the crucial influence of sexual selection.

Coupled to all of this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what Ridley calls the Red Queen: the idea that evolution is an endless, unwinnable ‘arms race’ (the reference is to Lewis Carroll, whose Red Queen stayed in the same spot no matter how hard she ran). Mice evolve to come out at night, when it’s safer, so owls evolve to see in the dark; mice evolve better ears to hear the owls coming, so the owls evolve silent ‘stealth feathers’ for noiseless flight. You are never safe; the contest never ends.

Ridley starts from first principles, however, and begins by examining what sound like initially rather odd questions – why have sex at all? And why are most animals arranged in the manner that they are, with two sexes, a father and a mother?

It would, after all, be simpler and less stressful just to bud off a clone of yourself whenever you felt was a propitious time – you could save all that time looking for a partner and just concentrate on having children, thus maximising your genetic legacy. Or, if we absolutely have to have sex as a species, why not all be hermaphrodites? Again, this would double (on average) the number of offspring resulting from successful procreation (both participants could give birth), again improving the genetic legacy one left behind.

I must confess that this is the book I very vaguely alluded to a while back when discussing an episode of Star Trek which dealt with a triple-gendered race of aliens. I had been wondering how such an arrangement might evolve and how it would actually work in real life. Ridley’s treatment of the subject is bad news for all but the most heroic and dauntless of SF writers: while it turns out there are sound reasons for sexual reproduction to exist, the same cannot be said for species with more than two genders. (Not without a fundamentally different mechanism for recording and transmitting genetic information, anyway.)

In any case, what the book goes on to make clear is that human sexuality is not a cultural construct but something which has evolved, the focus always being on securing the maximum number of healthy children. So it is that men have evolved to be naturally opportunistic and polygamous, with very powerful men throughout the history of every culture expressing this by leaving behind vast numbers of descendants. Men are likewise particularly attracted to the appearance of youth, as this indicates the potential to produce a larger number of children.

Women, on the other hand, have much less to gain by polygamy – a man can have several women carrying his children at the same time, while a woman can only carry one man’s child at once – and are as a result more naturally monogamous. Similarly, a man’s value is less in his reproductive potential, and more his capacity to provide for his children. Hence the question of exactly what they see in each other turns out to be a matter of evolution.

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This is all discussed in quite exhaustive detail, but Ridley is at pains to keep it all as accessible as possible and generally succeeds. He also takes pains to point out that there is no moral subtext to the book – his attempts to identify the ‘natural’ behaviour of humans does not imply he approves of it or considers it in any way desirable. Men may have a natural tendency for infidelity, especially with much younger beautiful women, but then we also have many other antisocial tendencies which we succeed in resisting on a routine basis. And surely it’s the case that a better understanding and awareness of this kind of behaviour is only likely to assist in controlling it.

In the end, as Ridley suggests at one point, it comes down to the question of whether you believe in original sin (our flaws are inherent and inescapable) or the perfectibility of the human race (we are born as tabula rasa, with no inherent tendencies). Neither is particularly flattering or satisfactory, and indeed the author argues this is a false dichotomy anyway.

This is all very interesting stuff, and I did find myself wondering what a discussion between Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, would sound like – Harari does ponder the mystery of why most societies have been male-dominated at once point, and I’m sure Ridley might have some ideas on the topic.

All I can offer is the suggestion that virtually every major culture has developed in a male-dominated form, and as a result they embody certain intrinsically masculine values and attitudes. However, we are still in the middle of a cultural shift to another set of values, ones which may even be rationally- rather than evolutionarily-derived. Hence the current conflict between opportunistic and exploitative masculine instincts, with millions of years of evolutionary pressure behind them, and notions of equality, respect, and human rights, some of which are very recent adoptions, culturally speaking. What can be done about this? I’m not sure. But as Ridley suggests in the quote at the top of this review, recognising that men and women are some levels innately different creatures, rather than being essentially identical and even somehow interchangeable, might be a good start. The key thing to bear in mind about men, is that they are men. On the other hand, being men is something that men are quite good at. We just have to figure out what that really means, and how to make the knowledge work for everyone.

 

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