The Personal History of David Copperfield (UK 2019)

Aneurin Barnard (left) as Steerforth and Dev Patel as David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s brave and spectacular film, which presents David Copperfield as a tale told by its subject, has received mixed reviews. I don’t have much time for the people who can’t cope with the decision to cast actors from diverse backgrounds in the film. It’s now a common practice in theatre and it means a strong cast in this film as well as making for some provocative images. As Variety‘s reviewer wrote after its Toronto screening, it is interesting to see a young Indian boy being exploited in a workshop – something that might not have happened in the the UK but certainly happened in British India in the 19th century.

Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick frees the thoughts from his head by letting them free, pasted to a kite. David and Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) watch on

I was most impressed by the cast (all 74 of them, far too many to name individually!), the cinematography by Zac Nicholson and the settings (art direction, costume design, production design) and the ideas used to ‘break the fourth wall’. It was interesting to see the film not long after watching Little Women with the similar conceit of the author appearing in the story. In fact, I liked all the scenes, but I wasn’t sure what it all added up to. I’m not really a Dickens fan but I do remember watching a BBC serial as a child and reading the novel (which I enjoyed) a very long time ago. I knew this wasn’t a ‘faithful adaptation’ and that didn’t worry me, but because I couldn’t remember all the characters or the plot from the book, my attention did wander as I didn’t feel invested in the long narrative. The original serial/novel is so long that I’m assuming many parts of the narrative are compressed or simply excised by Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell. I suspect that for many audiences, their interest will be how Iannucci’s skills and creativity are used to re-present Dickens for a modern audience. They will also welcome the chance to see Peter Capaldi re-united with Iannucci in the role of Mr Micawber (still associated with W. C. Fields for me).

Some impressive CGI transforms Kings Lynn into its early 19th century glory

What I did notice was that the events reminded me of 18th century novels – the picaresque narratives of Fielding such as Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, both filmed by Tony Richardson. It didn’t feel like a ‘Victorian’ narrative. Commentators often describe Dickens as a ‘Victorian writer’ but, thinking about it, the novel was published in 1850 after serialisation in 1849. Dickens would then have been in his late 30s so his childhood memories that fuel the narrative predate the Victorian era. In fact he would have been 25 when Victoria came to the throne. It’s appropriate then to think of the early events in the film as still being in the Regency period and in a sense a hangover from the 18th century. David Copperfield like most of Dickens’ stories is therefore a ‘Southern English’ story. There isn’t the sense of an industrial Britain developing that we find in the slightly later novels of Mrs Gaskell. There is no sign of railways, for instance (though Yarmouth was reached from Norwich by rail and passenger services began in 1844). Does this matter? Not really, but I think it feeds into a sense of the Dickensian imagination as set in an earlier period. Railways are the keystone for Victorian England for me.

The other question is whether the film is funny. I would call it amusing rather than side-splitting. This sounds like I’m putting it down, but I’m not. I’m glad I saw it. It was impressive to watch and I hope more people see it. Iannucci has brought out great performances from a talented cast and the film makes a pleasing spectacle. See it on the biggest screen possible.

One comment

  1. john David hall

    David Copperfield is certainly a re-telling of the narrative for a modern audience. The lady next to me at the Square Chapel spent much of the time scrolling on her phone during the course of, but I wouldn’t suppose she missed much of the story given that it was presented as a broad farce with multiple guest stars. Not much concentration was required, nor much emotional engagement. It was all rather….jaunty. I would have liked a bit more misery and squalor. I would have liked “Barkis is willing.”
    What I got was a pantomime. Looking at the various reviews I am very much on my own in this, but it wasn’t engaging, it wasn’t believable and it wasn’t even funny. No quarrel with the colourblind casting but when Nikki Amuka-Bird turned up as Aneurin Barnard’s mum it did rather divert the attention from the events on screen.

    Like

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