Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Dev Patel makes a charming lead in this Dickens adaptation that finds the comedy but misses the heart

Dir: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Dev Patel (David Copperfield), Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Whishaw (Uriah Heep), Paul Whitehouse (Mr Peggotty), Aneurin Barnard (James Steerforth), Daisy May Cooper (Peggotty), Morfydd Clark (Dora Spenlow/Clara Copperfield), Benedict Wong (Mr Wickfield), Darren Boyd (Mr Murdstone), Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone), Anthony Welsh (Ham Peggotty), Rosalind Eleazar (Agnes Wickfield), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Mrs Steerforth), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Strong)

If Charles Dickens ever had a favourite child, it was probably David Copperfield. His novel – heavily inspired by events in his own life and upbringing – is an epic masterpiece, part coming-of-age story, part heart-warming family saga, part social satire. It’s quite a challenge to boil down its hundreds and hundreds of pages – and multiple plot points and characters – into less than two hours, but that’s the task Armando Iannucci takes on here. Does it work?

Well, to be honest, not quite. There is a lot to admire here, I’ll say that straightaway. And maybe I’m hard on it as I’ve read (or listened to) the novel at least three times. But for me this version drains out the heart of the novel. It zeroes in on the comedy – and there are several scenes and characters that are inarguably funny – but in doing so it removes or peels away anything bittersweet or with even a hint of sadness. It’s funny, but also a strangely empty and unengaging version of the story that it’s hard to get invested in and finally seems to drag.

Iannucci uses a terrific framing device, inspired by Dickens’ own public readings of his work. The film opens with Copperfield (a wonderfully jovial and engaging Dev Patel) publically introducing his novel to a theatre full of people which, with a flourish, disappears as he walks into the scenery and into his own past. Iannucci sprinkles his film with little flourishes like this to remind us of the semi-created nature of what we are watching, from Mr Murdstone’s hand looming into the Peggottys’ boat to pluck Copperfield into the next scene, through to the use of projected imagery at key points to fill in visually backstories the characters in the scene are relating.

The book has been well pruned and structured – and this is in some ways a triumph of compression, since it ticks off nearly all the main storylines of the plot (with some changes) and includes all the main characters. The real purist will decry such things as the loss of Barkis and Mr Micawber’s famous lines, or the translation of Mr Creakle into a factory owner or Rosa Dartworth into Steerforth’s mother. But these are necessities of adaptation and much of the storyline remains the same (if abbreviated). The script punches up the comedy a great deal – Iannucci has been vocal in his feeling that Dickens does not get the appreciation he deserves as a comic writer.

The script also digs up a few gems in the novel – Copperfield’s nervousness in reading, his inability to read to Murdstone’s gaze, is imaginatively reinterpreted as dyslexia. The semi-Freudian longing he feels for the warmth and innocence of his lost childhood is neatly captured by casting Morfydd Clark (very endearing and charmingly ditsy) as both his mother and his first love Dora. There are several laugh-out loud moments and a charmingly freewheeling love for absurdity.

But what doesn’t work is that the heart and soul of the novel has been stripped out. There is, to put it frankly, no pain or difficulty here. The tears in Dev Patel’s eyes at the end of the film as he closes his recital with the audience and reflects on the triumphs and losses of his life feel unearned. Put frankly nothing seems that hard, for all poverty rears its head at time. Even the Murdstones are less fearsome and cruel than they need to be. Worst of all, anything of any real emotional depth or tragedy from the book is removed. The two key tragic deaths of the book are actively reversed here, with both Dora and Ham surviving at the end. The complexities of Copperfield’s feelings for Dora and Agnes are resolved with immense ease for a traditional happy ending in a garden of the heroes surrounded by friends and families (exactly the sort of happy ending that Greta Gerwig gently poked fun at in Little Women). 

It’s all boiled down and told for jokes and the emotional engagement just isn’t there. Dev Patel enters the film too early – Copperfield is a young adult before he even heads to his aunt’s house – meaning the lost, vulnerable sense of sad childhood turning into a happy one is completely lost, and Copperfield’s fragility is too quickly brushed aside. Mr Micawber (a funny turn from Capaldi, but far too wheedling) is played so much for laughs that his essential decency and kindness is lost in favour of a man who spends his life borrowing cash. Too often humour is the first and only port of call, and finally it crushes the heart out of the story.

There are triumphs in the film’s cast. Hugh Laurie is simply outstanding as Mr Dick – warm, funny, wise, surreal, eccentric, half a philosopher, half an engaging and excited child – it’s Laurie’s finest performance ever on film. Benedict Wong is very funny as the alcoholic Mr Wicklfield. Tilda Swinton has great fun as a battleaxe but wise Miss Trotwood. Nikki Annuka-Bird could cut glass as Mrs Steerforth. Aneurin Barnard makes for a charmingly dissolute Steerforth. Ben Whishaw is terrific as the unctuous and ambitious Uriah Heep. The colour-blind casting works a treat to bring a range of wonderful actors in.

It’s just a shame the story doesn’t translate as well. There is a theme somewhere in here of Copperfield trying to work out his identity (much prominence is given to his multiple names and nicknames) but it never really takes flight, serving as a fig leaf of an arc rather than an actual arc. It’s a film full of jokes and fine moments – but with no heart, and no real engagement with the audience, it ends up feeling far longer than reading the book.

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