The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannucci, director and co-script with Simon Blackwell
Based on a novel by Charles Dickens
Starring: Dev Patel (David Copperfield), Aneurin Barnard (James Steerforth), Peter
Capaldi (Mr. Micawber), Morfyydd Clark (Dora Spendlow/Clara Copperfield), Daisy May Cooper (Peggotty), Tilda Swinton (Betsy Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr. Dick), Ben Whishaw (Uriah Heep) Rosalind Eleazar (Agnes Wickfield), Paul Whitehouse (Mr. Peggotty), Benedict Wong (Mr. Wickfield), Darren Boyd (Edward Murdstone), Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone), Bronagh Gallagher (Mrs. Micawber), Anthony Welsh (Ham), Aimee Kelly (Emily)
Making a film out of a literary classic can easily lead to disaster or, almost as bad, a piece of utter mediocrity. How many great adaptations of Dickens has there been? Many can name a few with great fondness: Alastair Sims’ bravura performance as the title character in Scrooge (1951); the David Lean version of Great Expectations (1946) with its utterly moody opening graveyard scene; the eight hour beautifully detailed Andrew Davies’ scripted Bleak House (2005) made for the BBC–and seen on PBS here; and, just for its sheer zest and musicality, the musical Oliver! (1968). Sure, there are some others that are worthy but can you guess how many Dickens adaptations have been made for film and TV? According to IMDB, over 70. Most of those are, sad to say, not in contention for the “classic” accolade.
So, it’s a joy to proclaim a new nominee in the Dickens “best adaptation” sweepstakes, Armando Iannucci and his brilliant film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Good news: the satirical Brit with an elaborate Italian name has moved on from creating brainy, often political, TV comedies—Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, Veep—to making convincing arthouse films. With Copperfield, Iannucci shows he can paint on a broader canvas, with a vast range of characters and locales that range from a stark bottling factory to a quirky boathouse on the seashore to an idyllic country estate where an eccentric man can fly kites.
Iannucci has cast Copperfield in the colour blind manner of much present-day British theatre. Dev Patel, who has become a versatile leading actor, is just the right person to be Copperfield, a likeable character, who enjoys people and finds his true calling as a novelist. It’s wonderful to see Benedict Wong play the alcoholic lawyer Wickfield and the black actress Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter—and Copperfield’s true love. It’s not the novelty of the casting that works so well; it’s that the relationship between the actors is so natural and easy to grasp. By making the cast so contemporary, Iannucci invites a new audience to enjoy Dickens: young people who enjoy eccentricity and understand that some folks are always impoverished and that, quite simply, you still have to go on and live your life. If that’s part of what made Dickens so popular 150 years ago, and I think it is, then it’s crucial that artists like Iannucci can make his stories and characters relevant to an audience today.
Iannucci populates The Personal History of David Copperfield with some of the best character actors in Britain. There’s a great joy in seeing Hugh Laurie giving the mad Mr. Dick an almost unimaginable gravitas as he tells the tragic story of Charles the First to Copperfield. Tilda Swinton more than matches him as his benefactress Betsy Trotwood, Copperfield’s somewhat demented aunt and a wealthy property owner, who encourages freedom in her staff and herself. Just as wonderful is Peter Capaldi as the eternally broke Mr. Micawber, a man of refinement and charm who has clearly lost his way. Topping all of them is Ben Whishaw, who underplays the always scheming and ‘umble Uriah Heep who gradually turns into a villain who would try to swindle so many others.
David Copperfield is a weighty Victorian novel, over 600 pages in length, serialized in a magazine in 1849-1850. Iannucci is forced to solve the standard problem facing adapters of Dickens’ writings, compressing a complicated plot with a multitude of rich characters into a two hour film. Here’s where the years in sketch comedy have aided Iannucci. He knows how to jam a lot of ideas and narrative turns into short punchy scenes while effortlessly segueing from one sequence to another and keeping the story moving brightly.
The result is a delight, a film that anyone should like, whether they’ve read Dickens or not. Mind you, I do recommend reading Dickens and I suspect that Iannucci does, too.
Plus, a short take on The New Mutants.
The New Mutants
Jeff Boone, director and co-script w/Knate Lee
Starring: Maisie Williams (Rahne), Blu Hunt (Dani Moonstar), Anya Taylor-Joy (Illyana), Alice Braga (Dr. Reyes), Henry da Costa (Roberto), Charlie Heaton (Sam Guthrie)
Mix Marvel comic book heroics with strong horror film elements, then add some disturbing f/x scenes, plus a dollop of young adult romance. What do you get? An entertaining mess of a movie that features three young women as the leads—rare in an action film—as they try to figure out what’s going in a creepy mansion, which has no servants and very few computers. With their apparent mentor seeming to have no more of a clue about what’s going than do this quintet of angst-ridden teens, The New Mutants lurches between increasingly nightmarish scenes and sequences of young love—both hetero and lesbian. It’s easy to dismiss a film like this but the film does offer some gifted young actors—Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy and Blu Hunt –a chance to have some scene-stealing moments and the film offers a psychologically interesting conclusion to a tale of future X-Men taking a detour into Stephen King country. Worth seeing? If you want to go for its ride, The New Mutants is only at cinemas. Deciding to see it may be as much an adventure as the film itself.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean