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Posts Tagged ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

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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