The Personal History of David Copperfield
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, that “Having 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 a highly uneven experiment on his part, 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 with the adaptation, inadvisable for anyone wishing to make a coherent movie.