The Personal History of David Copperfield
(But the book is almost 150 years old, so you know, I’m not going to worry too much about this).
Bearing in mind that I am not familiar with the book (I have tried to read a Dickens, but the sentences are so, so long, it causes me pain), I came out of the cinema with two thoughts:
1. Iannucci is definitely a theatre person
2. He was in a mellower frame of mind on this one.
I say the first due to the casting. I was slightly thrown off at first, because I think I was expecting the casting of Dev Patel – and the other actors of colour – to be of significance within the plot. That is, I was expecting this to be David Copperfield re-interpreted in light of Indian colonialism or something.
But the way Iannucci uses colour-blind casting is far more in line with British theatrical tradition, where the casting doesn’t signify – ie a black woman can play a white man’s mother and it doesn’t matter, it’s not intended to represent any specific fact or intepretation of the text.
I will be quite curious how American critics will handle that aspect of the film, being used to race, and racial mixing, being presented as being of immense political and moral significance. (They may not react at all, of course, but I would expect it to be jarring).
Dev Patel is perfect for the part by the way. Partly it’s a physicality thing – he has what I can only describe as a funny walk (he seems more elastic than most people) – and partly I think it’s his eyes. No other actor I can think of can seem simultaneously so hapless and confused and vulnerable and geeky, while also being clearly charismatic as fuck.
Seeing Hugh Laurie play a benevolent fool was heartwarming – he’s just a o, so good at it! It brought to mind his roles in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster in the best way. And watching Tilda Swinton and Gwendoline Christie’s performances – I feel like Iannucci has been waiting his whole life for an opportunity to cast them, they are such perfect fits for his style (especially Swinton). I also really liked the actress who played Agnes, though I don’t think I’ve seen her before (I have seen one of the actors who played a minor role in the school scenes…somewhere, on stage, and it’s going to irritate me until I remember where).
Capaldi is also clearly having the time of his life as Micawber – he’s particularly fun watching play off the young David. But Aneurin Bernard – I’ve seen him in a number of things now, and he seems to have the kind of good looks that make him eternally destined to play the villain.
I have to say that I came out of the film with only the vaguest sense of the plot – what happens when and what the significance of the various moving pieces are – but the actors are so clearly enjoying themselves that it mostly doesn’t matter.
There’s a tenderness in how the characters are treated – sympathy for the feckless and downtrodden and mentally ill – that I think re-emphasises my idea that Iannucci is a moralist as well as a satirist. David’s London is a cruel place, and a hard place in which to succeed, and Iannucci might be less enraged by that fact than he was in say the Death of Stalin, but that same sense of the fundamental indecency of the ways in which people are forced to live is still there.
It’s not totally surprising that this adaptation is mellower than any of his other work – Dickens was a fairly sentimental writer, even at his best, and I don’t get the sense that David Copperfield as a story lends itself to satirical savagery anyway. Veep or the Thick of It this is not.
I should also say that I am 95% certain that I came across this being filmed in London about a year and a half ago, which is nice.