Friday, September 11, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield: A Review


It would have been too simple to call the film plain David Copperfield. No, director/co-writer Armando Iannucci had to go with the more flamboyant The Personal History of David Copperfield. That should signal how cutesy this Charles Dickens adaptation is meant to be seen. Meant being the operative word, for while David Copperfield has some strong qualities, it simply is too self-aware and rapid to be what it aims at.

Our titled hero David Copperfield (Dev Patel) rushes through life with a cheerful optimism as the narrator of his own adventures. We steamroll through all the major events of his life up to the time of his writing. There is his birth, followed by his mother's remarriage to the abusive Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), his exile to a bottling factory, his mother's death, and salvation with his Aunt Betsy (Tilda Swinton) and her bonkers cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). 

There's his school days where he encounters the seemingly subservient Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) and re-encounters the kind but perpetually broke Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) masquerading as a schoolteacher. David also makes friends with young and wealthy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), whom David introduces to the family of his former nanny. More wild romances for Steerforth and David come but not without David's fortunes rising and falling and rising again until all is well.

This is the second Iannucci film I've seen, and now I find that his style is simply not to my liking. I was one of the few dissenting voices on The Death of Stalin, my major issue being the same that I have with The Personal History of David Copperfield: it is simply too aware that it is a "comedy". I'm not averse to a little winking at the audience, but both The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield simply held that they were funny by default and everyone behaved as such. I'm of the belief that comedy should flow naturally from the situations, which I did not find in David Copperfield.

The real problem for David Copperfield is that everything was far too frenetic and frantic, going so fast through what I imagine is a massive novel that more than once I wondered "who are these people and why should we care?" Take for example when Mr. Micawber appears in David's classroom much to his horror. 

He had already told his friends all about his adventures with Mr. Micawber when he appears, and in what appears to be the fastest hiring and firing in school history our hapless but endearing miscreant is let go within maybe ten minutes of entering the school when Steerforth exposes him to the whole class. The audience gets a series of whiplashes as David Copperfield races from scene to scene to where at times you become, not lost but more puzzled at to who is who and what is what.

In his time at the bottling company we are introduced to two characters whom I called "Whisperer" and "Repeater" because I don't think we ever got their names and these were their only defining characteristics. I figure the fact that one whispered and the other repeated what was said was meant to be funny. It wasn't at least to me.

It was however, the major issue with David Copperfield: we had to rush past so much that there wasn't time to develop anything close to interest, let alone a grounding as to the characters. A major element of David's persona is that his eyesight goes blurry whenever he's asked to read something in public. Perhaps in the novel this is important, but in the film version it seems so much filler.

David Copperfield's big claim to fame is its color-blind casting, and I'm of two minds of it. To its credit you do forget that David is an Indian or that the very white Steerforth's mother is black (Nikki Amuka-Bird). It's an interesting experiment that doesn't work completely: I did wonder why not cast an Far East Asian actress to play Agnes, the daughter to Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) versus casting a black actress (Rosalind Eliazar) for the role. 

It's a simultaneously good and bad step: good in that allows a wider variety of actors to play roles, bad in that the casting at times seems haphazard with no real rhyme or reason other than to have a diverse casting. It also doesn't help that because everything is so rushed we can't appreciate the skills of much of the minority actors save for Wong, who was quite delightful as our inebriated Wickfield. Amuka-Bird appears at most in three scenes, and she appeared so overtly broad in the snobbish "comedy" that it gave the viewer no insight into her skills.

As a side note, I am puzzled as to why when we, I think correctly, celebrate color-blind casting in film we are simultaneously told that there can be no color-blind casting in animation. Perhaps wiser people can explain why only black actors can voice black cartoon characters at the same time black actors can play non-black live-action characters (as I figure Dickens did not picture Agnes Wickfield as black). 

Patel was pleasant enough as the wide-eyed David, though he ended up being a bit boring to where one wonders why anyone would care about his life story. Capaldi, Laurie and Swinton were standouts in their varied whacked-out characters even if at times they were a bit broad for my tastes. Whishaw was somewhat comically creepy as Uriah Heep (and yes, the band was the first thing that came to mind) but I wasn't overwhelmed by him, again most likely due to the rushed nature of the film. I was never sure if I should take him seriously or not as the villain, especially as he became the villain quickly versus gradually.

The Personal History of David Copperfield certainly thinks it's clever as it speeds through its story, but despite never having read the novel I imagine the book is much deeper and richer than this adaptation. The film is too fast to be a good adaptation, rushing through things and at times almost forgetting where it is. It is also too broad and self-aware for my tastes...but the costumes were nice.   


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