The Personal History Of David Copperfield
I consider myself a fairly well-read guy, but I am a total Dickens amateur. Oh, I’ve read A Christmas Carol, and more importantly I have watched A Muppets Christmas Carol enough that I can probably recite it by heart. Oh, and South Park’s take on Great Expectations still makes be chuckle. But aside from that, and a distant memory of watching Oliver! when I was younger, my experience with the man, his writings, and the adaptations of the same is painfully limited. Maybe its the imposing length of his novels, or unappealing titles like Bleak House, but I balk when it comes to Dickens.
But Armando Iannucci, there is a name that makes positively salivate. His The Death Of Stalin is one of the best political comedies of recent times, and comes on the heels of In The Loop, Veep and The Thick Of It, all brilliant examples of Iannucci’s comedic acumen. Hence why I was very much looking forward to what I will truncate to Copperfield from now on, despite it seeming to be a little outside of Iannucci’s wheelhouse (when I first saw the trailer, I wondered if it might be a parody). But the man is entitled to try his hand at something a bit more, shall we say, traditional after so many years of biting comedy (and he did make a documentary for BBC on Dickens eight years ago). Was Copperfield the first sign that Iannucci is moving into the film-making mainstream, or maybe a vanity project he would have been better off ignoring the impulse for?
The sweeping story of David Copperfield (Dev Patel, Jairaj Varsani) is told to an expectant audience by the man himself, taking in the various seasons of his life and the colourful cast of characters that defined it: a childhood ruined owing to the depredations of brutish stepfather Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and the penury of Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi); new hope in the form of eccentric aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and her companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie); friendships with the gallivanting James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) and romances with childish Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark); and final reckonings with the manipulative and villainous Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
So, I’m not really sure about Copperfield. There are the aspects of a very good film throughout it’s 120 minute running time, and a very clear appreciation for the source material from the writer/director. But I wasn’t able to really settle into Copperfield the same I have for much of the directors’ previous work, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the pace of its narrative, and the sense that I was only viewing a certain percentage of a larger story. Perhaps the very writing of this review will help make my thoughts clear.
One thing is for sure, it’s hard not to fall in love with the cast, all of whom are great, and if the film has one standout undeniable saving grace, it is the incredible work of that cast. Iannucci has always been able to draw fine performances out of his principals, and here he does it with dozens of them. Patel is as magnetic as always in the lead role, giving the sometimes manic, sometimes tragic, but always endearing Copperfield a real sense of charm and fun throughout, but helped ever and anon by the cavalcade of stars around him.
They include but are not limited to Tilda Swinton as Copperfield’s eccentric donkey-obsessed aunt, Hugh Laurie’s demented Mr Dick (who thinks he’s inheriting the thoughts of a decapitated Charles I), the arrogant lothario Steerforth, given such vicious bonhomie by Dunkirk’s Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi’s naer-do-well but also scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold Micawber, Morfydd Clark as both Copperfield’s mother and wife (an interesting dual casting, calling attention to the title character’s routine suffering of loss) and a really delightful Ben Whishaw as the villain of the piece, an intensely creepy but remarkably vicious Uriah Heep. You might think that the diversity of the cast may be part of some anti-Brexit political point of the directors making, but there is little to see on that score here: the cast, which feature many minority actors beyond Patel, is just reflective of where Britain is at the minute. Indeed, if anything, Iannucci is going against form with Copperfield, showcasing a narrative built on the positives of community and hope, when his back catalogue is marked mostly with cynicism.
They all come together in this expansive, character driven period piece, but the truth is that Iannucci just has too much to get through for this to be a fully-formed experience. As sorry as I am to say it, it probably could have done with extra time, or a split into a miniseries format. Things move so fast in Copperfield that one never really gets a chance to catch their breath, between childhood joy, childhood misery, chasing donkeys, flying kites, drinking excessively, courting a dunce, foiling the villain, saving a man from drowning, finding wealth, losing it, gaining it and on and on.
Iannucci does his very best to keep this all engaging, and in a way Copperfield benefits from its utterly manic sense of pace. It certainly couldn’t be described as a boring movie. But there is a bit too much telling when there should be room for showing, maybe a few too many characters to keep track of and maybe to much of a convoluted story, even if, as I understand it, Iannucci has not been reticent in wielding the knife (or maybe he just wielded it incorrectly). Gwendoline Christie, Paul Whitehouse, and Darren Boyd are too good at their craft, and playing characters that really are quite interesting seeming, for them to be largely throwaway cameos here.
In other ways, Copperfield reminds me very much of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, insofar as they are both films where the chief creator is clearly in love with the prose of the source material, to the point of literally slapping it on he screen for you to read. Where Iannucci may see appropriate reverence, I see cliche and a lack of confidence in those same words, that apparently cannot be left to simply be spoken and make an impact. But perhaps Iannucci can be forgiven the impulse, because there is so much good prose here that it must be irresistible, to draw direct attention to it: one excerpt that springs to mind vividly is the description of Steerforth’s stern mother as a woman who “has worn herself away by constant sharpening. She is all edge”.
And, of course, it is funny, though maybe not as funny as some of Iannucci’s priors. That might be because he is unable to liberally employ profanity like he could with Stalin’s cronies or the Labour party stalwarts in The Thick Of It. But it is still funny, in every awkward rejoinder, in every cutting remark, and every bit of verbal insanity. The book is obviously a verbal wonder, if the adaptation is anything to go by. The traditional view of Dickensian literature as a representation of a bleak, grim-covered era is blown apart by the wealth of colour here, making the world of Copperfield feel remarkably fresh: some of the darker aspects of the course material have apparently been left at the wayside.
Ultimately Copperfield is a film that, from a narrative standpoint, should probably be enjoyed primarily as a series of vignettes that just happen to have an inter-connected plot-line, not unlike the first few seasons of The Thick Of It actually. There is drama, there is tragedy, there are comedic asides and there are Victorian adventures at every level of society. Perhaps more could have been made out of Uriah Heep and his singular machinations, in order to give the film a firmer focus, but Iannucci clearly could not resist upside down boat houses, drunken trips to a theatre and continual glimpses of Copperfield himself looking back at his own life. That last point could also have been a much bigger deal, with the film opening and closing with the adult Copperfield addressing his younger self (an impressive Jairaj Varsani), but this embrace of the autobiographical aspect of the novel is limited to those bookends.
It’s a great looking feature. Having gradually gone up and up and in budget, Copperfield gives Iannucci the chance to really make a visual mark, with a gorgeous period production that runs the gauntlet of the Dickensian world. The happy scenes are bright, airy, and immaculately filmed to present a sense of love, affection and comradeship, be it the upside down ship house that Copperfield spends part of his childhood in, or Betsey’s home, divided between lush fields (plagued with donkeys) and Mr Dick’s bizarre assortment of unhinged thoughts. And the darker scenes are filmed with an eye for grim detail and stern countenance, whether it is the bottling factory that leaves Copperfield aching for any kind of fulfillment, or the slums that form the backdrop of some of the film’s lowest moments. Yes, it is a lot of “walk and talk” that Iannucci has used repeatedly in his previous productions, and some may consider the televisual style a sign that the director has his head firmly on the small screen, but it is also intimate in its focus and detail-orientated in its mise-en-scene.
Iannucci has always had a knack for allowing actors to dominate the frame without them actually doing so, and employs that skill liberally here. Dev Patel, already such a magnetic presence as it is, really benefits from this kind of framing, given every opportunity to make the Copperfield character as interesting and likable as he needs to be, as the camera spins around drawing rooms and hovels, or chases after him moving manically from scene to scene. And that sense of comedic fun blurs through into the visual too: when, in delivering the news of his mothers death, Mr Murdstone awkwardly reaches out to pat Copperfield on the shoulder, the suddenly static nature of the camera combined with the ridiculous insincerity of the gesture makes for some brilliant black comedy. In the end, the cinematography is lockstep in line with Iannucci’s intention to emphasise Copperfield as a biography (it was allegedly based on Dickens’ life experiences), such as in the opening scene when, reading aloud from his book onstage, the backdrop falls away and Patel starts marching literally into the scene of his own birth.
While The Personal History Of David Copperfield is most certainly a step in a new direction for Iannucci, it is not an unwelcome one, despite the film’s self-evident problems. It’s difficult to fit so much plot in so small a space, when there are so many characters and so many brilliant actors inhabiting them. It lacks focus and has questionable pacing, so it comes off as overly-episodic for the medium.
But the cast are incredible, it looks great and, while it may seem a bit condescending considering Iannucci is 56 years old, it showcases a maturity for the director, a firm sign that he wants to branch out from the stuff that brought him to the show and into the realm of material that may make a more lasting impression, at least in the mainstream. There are things to improve upon, perhaps even a sense of ambition that should be reined in, but even when he doesn’t meet all expectations, Iannucci is a man whose work I continue to eagerly look forward to. For that, recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).