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.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.