April 05, 2020

Article at NZ Listener

Result? Happiness

A David Copperfield movie that’s both refreshing and hugely affectionate for the source material.


Directed by Armando Iannucci

As his life and books showed, and as this effervescent adaptation of his most loved novel reminds, Charles Dickens was a man of many virtues. But despite being Victorian England’s best known novelist-abolitionist-philanthropist- journalist-satirist, he was also a nationalist and a racist. Yes, and before some of you start dashing off a letter to the editor, it is true he was an Englishman of his times.
But his dubious attitudes didn’t stop with the anti-Semitism of Fagin in Oliver Twist.
When it came to the British Empire’s non-British residents, he regarded them as savages. He advocated genocide in response to the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In 2008, his great-great grandson Gerald apologised on behalf of the family to the Inuit of Canada after Dickens had, in the play, The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins but under Dickens’ substantial guidance, and elsewhere accused them of eating the crew of 1845 Franklin Expedition when the evidence showed the stranded starving explorers had resorted to cannibalism, despite being virtuous and English. He might have preached abolitionism on both sides of the Atlantic but he thought giving freed slaves the vote was ridiculous.
Otherwise, by all accounts and there has been a fair few of them, he was a jolly good fellow.
All of which is to say, of all the jokes in Armando Iannucci’s surprisingly gentle take on The Personal History of David Copperfield — the best-loved and most autobiographical of Dickens’ works — maybe the most pointed one is on the author himself. Colourblind casting in period productions has been happening for years. Here, given Dickens’ history, it feels amusingly pointed, as if Iannucci is hoping for spinning sounds beneath the flagstones of Westminster Abbey.
The film’s setting is 1840s England but its people are post-Empire 2020 England. Not only is there Dev Patel in exuberant form as Copperfield, but also the cast includes actors whose ancestry springs from all over the Commonwealth. Even Scotland.
For Iannucci regular Hugh Laurie, one of many names in a vast supporting ensemble, this is nothing new. He starred in Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of Lloyd Jones’ Mr. Pip which had scenes depicting a Melanesian cast of merry Londoners in its riff on Great Expectations. Laurie’s troubled but kind Mr Dick one of many supporting characters — which also includes Tilda Swinton’s eccentric Betsey Trotwood and Ben Whishaw’s Norman Bates-like Uriah Heep — that feel like they deserve their own movie, based on how much fun they are here.
The long episodic story has meant past screen adaptations of Copperfield have tended towards television. But this is a feat of compression and it has a skip in its step, hurdling some chapters in a single bound and never stopping to wallow in the usual misery. While there’s been a recent tendency towards tricky Dickensian screen treatments like The Man Who Invented Christmas which inserted the writer into his own A Christmas Carol and series Dickensian which intermingled characters from his books. The low-impact gimmickry in this, though, extends to an opening with Copperfield giving a very Dickens-like theatre reading of the book’s famous opening lines and projecting flashbacks and other memories onto walls. The Copperfield-as-Dickens opening is, in its own way, also a sign of reverence for the material and its original first-person perspective which, despite the big ensemble, the film maintains without becoming tedious. It helps that this relies, like Iannucci’s past comedy has, on the energy of the zinging between the characters. These ones have much nicer manners. But they still zing terrifically in a David Copperfield movie that is both refreshing and wryly affectionate for the source material.