Skip to main content

These potatoes could be my last.

The Personal History of David Copperfield 
(2019)

(SPOILERS) To go by Mark Kermode’s Twitter rant a few weeks back, anyone who doesn’t see eye to eye with him on Armando Iannucci’s decision to adopt a “colour-blind” approach in casting his David Copperfield adaptation is a closet racist (or a not-so-closet one). Actually, no. They’re “whingebagging closet-racist asshats” (guaranteed to get the Twitterati upvotes, that one). Now, some of those objecting to Iannucci’s approach may well fit that description, but Kermode’s stance is as excessive as slapping five stars on what is, at best, a fitfully enjoyable adaptation of Dickens’ favourite of his novels.

Iannucci’s idea is at least an interesting one, thatHaving seen [colour-blind casting] in the theatre, it’s always struck me, why don’t we do that in film? I wanted this to sit both in 1850 and in the present day. I was saying to the cast, ‘Don’t act Victorian, act like we’re here now because this is the present day for these people’”. The latter point is one that has considerable currency with adaptions anyway, in aid of buzzy notions of immediacy and accessibility to a period (even if it’s also something of a sop).

In respect of the casting decision, however, dropping the players into 1850 – rather than, say, making a present-day version, as Alfonso Cuarón did with Great Expectations – raises the question of why the era is deemed so important if its accompanying attitudes and prejudices are to go simultaneously unacknowledged. Particularly with regard to a novel that’s already all about class prejudice. I’m not sure the theatre comparison entirely translates, unless the intention is also to convey the accompanying artifice of theatre, something the medium of film consciously tends to fight against (which again comes back to: why painstakingly recreate 1850, if immersion is irrelevant?)

There are points in Iannucci’s film where he does approach a more fantastical telling, where the period specificity takes on an almost incidental quality. Most notably through a tack that bears some resemblance to Greta Gerwig’s with Little Women, of placing the “author” (this was, after all, Dickens’ most autobiographical work) in the story, such that Dev Patel’s Copperfield provides a bookend, announcing and concluding his story before a live audience. At times too, Iannucci offers visual flourish as a window into characters thoughts or narrated events. Too often, though, these are in the service of keeping the plot moving along at a clip; while it’s Iannucci’s casting conceit that is getting all the attention, his biggest break with the novel is turning it into a frenetic, knockabout farce, one that rarely settles down for long enough to elicit an appreciative response, be that in the dramatic or comedic stakes.

There are certainly points where we’re actively invited to care about Copperfield’s fate – Darren Boyd and particularly Gwendoline Christie are utterly loathsome as the Murdstones, while Ben Whishaw makes for a suitably odious Uriah Heep, undermining and attempting to bring everyone in David’s circle to wrack and ruin – but too often the picture feels like it’s rushing about in a mad panic, failing to take the necessary time to engage with its characters and establish their situations. Iannucci uses shorthand casting of familiar faces – Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Paul Whitehouse – but it’s a two-edged sword, particularly as he’s also relying on the flippant impertinence The Thick of It’s roving camera; at times, this feels closer to panto than a bona fide literary adaptation.

The decision to skip through each subplot means elements are paid short shrift or treated with jarring off-handedness. A significant amount of time is spent on Aneurin Barnard’s Marc Bolan-esque Steerforth and his caddish behaviour, only for the conclusion to dismiss his misadventure in a breathless piece of narration and transposed elements; by this point, Iannucci seems to have remembered he promised to get the picture in under two hours and decides to drop everything for a gabbled sprint to the finish.

Patel’s typically likeable but typically unremarkable in the lead. The aforementioned trio of Laurie, Capaldi and Whitehouse deliver exactly the kind of performances you’d expect as Mr Dick, Mr Micawber and Mr Pegotty respectively, while Benedict Wong (as Mr Wickfield) has a very funny scene with a drinks trolley/cabinet. Rosalind Eleazor is hugely winning as Agnes Wickfield, so having the desired effect of making David seem like a dozy idiot for failing to see what’s under his nose. Swinton’s on a rare wrong side of ham as Betsey Trotwood. Morfydd Clark’s also bit OTT too as Dora Spenlow, closer to something from a Wodehouse adaptation; Dickens can certainly bring out the actor’s tendency to play to the gallery, but this is compounded here by Iannucci’s modus operandi of giving the comedy some welly, amping up the humour to something approximating his comfort zone.

The Personal History of David Copperfield makes for an interesting experiment on his part, but a highly uneven one that actively resists full immersion in the story ostensibly being told. At times I felt Iannucci was hewing dangerously close to Baz Luhrmann’s over-excitable approach to the adaptation, inadvisable for anyone wishing to make a coherent movie.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.