Monday, July 13, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfeild (film review)

The cinema is back. I have an addiction for the cinema experience. So, a friend of mine booked the first morning session: 11am! I just love sitting in my seat as the lights go down, watching the previews and then the feature close to the front, to be enveloped by the width of the screen and surrounded by the sound. I have diagnosed the need to have the stimulation of the flicker of the large image otherwise I can become a little depressed, literally. No matter the quality of the film or its genre I feel so much better when I come out of the darkened 'cave'.

I went to see the new Dickens adaptation of his novel, whose title has been edited down to: THE PERSONAL LIFE STORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Armando Iannucci co-wrote with Simon Blackwell and Directed the screenplay himself. His other work includes the satiric comic television series THE THICK OF IT and VEEP.  In 2017 he Directed THE DEATH OF STALIN - a wondrously dizzy excursion into political satire with a stellar cast of actors, a must see.

The film is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY, ADVENTURES, EXPERIENCE AND OBSERVATION OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, THE YOUNGER, which was published first in serial form but arrived as a complete novel in 1840. This was Dickens' favourite work and has an autobiographical aura about it. The novel was special for Dickens - his favourite achievement.

The novel takes us on the maturing journey of David Copperfield who is shaped by the family and friends of his acquaintance who we get to know precipitously through the robust comic caricatures we meet on his life journey. There are liberties taken with the source material but not to any lessening of the adventures we encounter. Iannucci seems to be as in love with the material as Dickens himself was and has a tremendous respectful attitude to the source - as in any novel adaptation there are instances of character and event that have been excised that will, possibly, distress you - but in a 2 hour storytelling,  something has to give in the huge epic that is the book.

The film is boisterous fun set in the many social stratas of the early Victorian era celebrating it with a sense of joy but with an acute and accurate (and subtle) eye for the difficulties of the huge adjustment that the British nation was having shifting into the economic and social challenges of the Industrial Revolution in the city of London and the country, both rural and seaside. It is the Victorian Era writ large with the social, political, satiric energy that made Dickens such an important artist of his time in indicating where the social reforms by government ought to be made.

Iannucci begins the film with David Copperfield arriving on a Victorian theatre stage to read and impersonate the novel much as, famously, Dickens did: acting out his books, creating his characters, performing - he was a famous amateur actor (ham!). The Director then shifts us into natural locations, bantering back and forth from the 'theatrical' locations to naturalistic renderings. It begins much like the Joe Wright adaptation of the 2012 ANNA KARENINA, with Keira Kneightly, but does not pursue the same risky consistent bravura shifts that the Wright film has (I love it, some others were disconcerted by the Wright 'method' - it does take adjustment but it is worth making an effort to do.)

The other offer that Iannucci makes with the film is to practice colour blind casting right across the board. David Copperfield is played by Indian actor Dev Patel. Mr Whitfield is played by British Asian actor Benedict Wong, whose daughter Agnes is played by Rosalin Eleazar. Niki Ameka-Bird plays Mrs Streerforth whose patrician son, James, is played by Aneurin Barnard. There is no question of visual racial contradictions that could intrude on the film as an obstacle to our involvement as the sheer confidence of the company and that each actor is absolutely the best actor for that role sweeps us imaginatively into utter belief - the speed of the film allows no time for quarrel or questioning  the choices. It is a refreshing exercise and ought to be a standard for imaginative casting to come; both in the cinematic world and in the theatre (where it has been in practice for some many years in Europe and the United States.)

This film is also boasting and bursting with actors who, if you are a fan of the work of Iannucci, are a familiar team: Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Tilda Swinton (Betsy Trotwood), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Uriah Heep) are some of them. (I especially loved Dev Patel, who seems to be able to do anything. Ben Wishaw is astonishing and was at first not recognisable.)

The DAVID COPPERFRIELD story was famously told in film  for MGM, directed by George Cukor (one of the Great Directors of the era), in 1935. It was the quality standard bearer of this story and is still a film that is worth watching and loving. The acting company is sublime and the story, for its contextual period, is moving, funny and enhancing. Compare the achievements.

I thoroughly recommend Armando Iannucci"s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD.

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