April 2020

Arts & Letters

Properly British: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

By Shane Danielsen

Dev Patel in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’.

A multicultural vision underscores the acclaimed British satirist’s endearing Dickensian romp

I first read David Copperfield when I was seven years old. As the thickest book on my parents’ shelf (826 pages in the Nelson Doubleday hardcover edition), it was a mountain I badly wished to conquer. But I’d also been snared by its opening sentence: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” For a young boy, uncertain of his own place in the world, the words were spellbinding. Like a hand extended from the dark.

An early bout of German measles had left me severely short-sighted, and for much of my childhood I looked like the baby chicken Foghorn Leghorn tries to coax outside to play baseball – small and gravely serious behind massive spectacles. My mum and dad would look in on me from time to time in my bedroom, amused (they later admitted) by the sight of this tiny kid absorbed in this massive book. Eventually – and despite having no idea what a proctor was – I finished it, the first “grown-up” novel I ever read; that same copy sits on my bookshelf to this day.

My main takeaway? A lot happens to David Copperfield. As a novel, it’s simultaneously a marathon and a sprint – more sprawling and capacious than Oliver Twist or Great Expectations, yet at the same time a work of extraordinary, almost monomaniacal intensity: the performance of a single voice and point of view, sustained over hundreds of pages and four tumultuous decades. Dickens cited it as his favourite among his works (“Like many fond parents,” he wrote, “I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child, and his name is David Copperfield”), and it’s assuredly the most delightful. Reading, you sense the author’s imagination firing on all cylinders – leapfrogging exuberantly from one set piece to the next, accumulating colour, incident and detail along the way.

As such, it presents a significant challenge for any cinema version. There have been a number of TV movies and limited series, but, tellingly, it hasn’t been adapted for the big screen since George Cukor’s 1935 version for MGM. (With W. C. Fields as Mr Micawber. That’s how old it is.)

Which only makes Armando Iannucci’s achievement, with The Personal History of David Copperfield, all the more impressive. It’s a digested version, inevitably, but one that, at just 119 minutes, stays remarkably true to the spirit, if not the structure of the book.

More than the (excellent) cast, more even than Dickens himself, Iannucci is the selling point here, the entire reason this lavish new version exists. Since making his small-screen debut in 1994, as co-writer and producer of the great BBC comedy show The Day Today, he’s been recognised as one of the finest satirists of his generation. His work on Veep, for HBO, earned him two Emmys and a string of Writers Guild of America awards. But anyone hoping for the savage verbal wit of that show, or the darkly comic nihilism of his previous feature, The Death of Stalin, may be disappointed. Appropriate to its source, and befitting its maker’s deep affection for the author (whom Iannucci feted in an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives back in 2003), the humour this time is a gentler, broader affair, the tone more tender, generous and, well, Dickensian.

That said, various artistic decisions have been made – the language has been updated, albeit subtly, while Iannucci and his co-writer, Simon Blackwell, have elected to double-down on the story’s absurdist elements – and the director conducts both the action and the banter at a hectic, headlong pace, reminiscent at times of the sketch-comedy tradition from which he emerged. Overall, the feeling is of a classic stripped back and dusted down, the better to appeal to viewers either unfamiliar with or forgetful of the original novel. “It’s the language of the book, the humour, not the story,” he told a journalist last July. “The story is actually the least interesting part.”

I’m not entirely sure I agree with that – though there are, I concede, certainly moments when Dickens’ authorial attention seems to wander. (Where does Mr Micawber disappear to for so long, anyway?) We’ve definitely lost a few things in this retelling. Gone, for instance, is much of the novel’s political subtext, though some critics (notably, George Orwell) would argue that this was never quite as strident as we think. The sad fate of Ham, too, is given far shorter shrift than it deserves.

In their place, Iannucci deploys a barrage of directorial flourishes, from Terry Gilliam–like models (a giant hand appears, at one point, to literally guide the action) and visual effects (looking up, David glimpses his beloved’s face in the clouds), to a short sequence staged as a 1920s silent movie. This could grate – and will undoubtedly vex purists – yet somehow it seems weirdly apposite, both to the novel’s meta-fictional quality (David operates as a Dickens-surrogate throughout, the author of his own narrative), and to the writer’s own maximalist approach. Per an exasperated Orwell: “Everything is piled up and up, detail on detail, embroidery on embroidery. It is futile to object that this kind of thing is rococo – one might as well make the same objection to a wedding­cake.”

I cite Gilliam advisedly, since the shooting style here – the dizzy whip-pans and handheld framing, often captured by cinematographer Zac Nicholson with leering, wide-angle lenses – seems indebted to the former Python, recalling at times his curious, underrated 2005 drama Tideland.

Still, the film’s not entirely devoid of politics. Iannucci’s decision to cast Dev Patel as David Copperfield, for example, is being hailed as a triumph of what’s become known as “colour-blind casting”, a theatre convention belatedly making its way into movies. But while it’s a commendable move, I’m not so sure it’s “blind”, exactly. Rather, it seems to me the acknowledgement of a plain and irrefutable fact: Britain today is a multiracial country, and its Indian- and Pakistani-descended citizens are every bit as “properly British” as, say, Alan Bennett or Felicity Kendal. Those who would consider Patel’s casting a sop to political correctness are, ironically, the same Daily Mail–reading boors whose Empire-fetish created this state of affairs in the first place: however much they might prefer to pretend otherwise, colonialism remains very much a reciprocal arrangement.

Certainly, few who see the film will lament Patel’s inclusion. One of the most charismatic of British leading men, he is little short of superb as the titular hero, his performance – always charming, and often boisterously, hilariously physical – reminiscent of Chaplin and, weirdly enough, of Malcolm McDowell in another, equally eccentric British coming-of-age story, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). Typically an economical actor (for proof, check out his lead turn in Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest), Patel frequently seems all elbows and knees here, stumbling through a world of codes and circumstances he barely apprehends. When he’s not narrating the action directly to camera, he wears an air of earnest befuddlement throughout. It’s endearing.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, is faultless. Betsey Trotwood ranks among Tilda Swinton’s finest screen performances, making excellent use of her Head Girl hauteur. Peter Capaldi is a pitch-perfect Mr Micawber, Ben Whishaw a memorably unctuous Uriah Heep, and Hugh Laurie (acting, somewhat unusually these days, without an American accent) steals almost every scene as the sweet-tempered, perennially distracted Mr Dick.

Even the smaller roles have been thoughtfully filled. I had the good fortune in February to see Rosalind Eleazar as Yelena in Uncle Vanya, in the West End, and felt as I watched her an intimation of greatness; the scene in the third act, where she listens in uneasy silence as Astrov outlines his plans, was as masterful a display of reactive performance as I’ve ever witnessed. And her Agnes Wickfield here is no less fully realised. An essentially passive character on the page – little more, really, than a Victorian notion of dutiful femininity – she’s brought to vivid, passionate life by Eleazar, making her an equal partner for our young hero, rather than merely his Platonic ideal.

Patel’s casting might have drawn the most attention, but rather more intriguing is Iannucci’s decision to use the same actress – Morfydd Clark – in dual roles: as David’s widowed mother Clara and as Dora Spenlow, the puppy-obsessed child-bride with whom he later, and unadvisedly, falls in love. It’s a casting choice that implies a Freudian element to this bildungsroman – as if the foundling were trying, albeit subconsciously, to regain the home and family he lost – and the kind of small, clever touch that bespeaks the screenwriter’s deep familiarity with the material, and his willingness to interrogate its subtexts and implications.

There’s a certain kind of filmgoer, of course, for whom this stuff is pure dessert. The toney literary pedigree, the stately country houses, the lavish costumes. (Credit, in this particular case, to designers Suzie Harman and Robert Worley – and to Cristina Casali’s discreetly colour-coded production design.) At its worst, this gives us Downton Abbey, a Tory wet dream of grateful servants and ossified class structures. But at its best, it embodies a thoughtful, quietly subversive strain of British cinema, films like Iain Softley and Hossein Amini’s The Wings of the Dove (1997), Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000) – and now this one, arriving at a most unpropitious moment, as Britain abandons the European Union and attempts, like young David, to make its own way in the world.

“It’s in vain to recall the past,” Dickens wrote, “unless it works some influence upon the present.” For Iannucci, the Glasgow-born son of Italian immigrants, the film is a valentine, a love song to the diversity and creativity of the culture that shaped him. Hasty this version may be, but it’s never for a moment frivolous or lightly felt. Its maker’s faith in an inclusive, polyglot Britain will endure.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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