Thursday 30 January 2020

This boy's life: "The Personal History of David Copperfield"

To some degree, Armando Iannucci's new film of David Copperfield - The Personal History of David Copperfield, the one long-winded thing about it - has had its way paved by the success over Christmas of Greta Gerwig's Little Women. Here is another notable recent example of what we might call the paperchase adaptation (DC's poster makes a conspicuous feature of pages being thrown in the air): a distinctively redirected take that rigorously upends a text you may think you know back-to-front, with an aim to seeing what now falls out and attracts the eye and interest. Little Women was definitely Gerwiggy: light, bright and flighty, and as preoccupied with the struggles of young creatives in the first years of the 21st century as it was with those of young creatives in the last years of the 19th century. David Copperfield follows as recognisably Iannuccy: taking its cue from its hero's own paraphrased "these moments must show", it's shot fast and loose like sketch comedy, encompassing an ensemble who've flourished in superior examples of the form. Yet again, we're watching the making of a creative, but here, it's the making of an observational comic or satirist, the camera noting how this Copperfield (Dev Patel) learns to scrutinise his absurd world, and what he makes from it, more often than not from next to nothing. You could mourn what's been left behind in turning a serial into a single two-hour sit: certainly, the film barely sets foot into the Dickensian darkness, and so there's never anything quite as bleak or tragicomic as there was in Iannucci's previous The Death of Stalin. What's crucial, though, and what I think merits cheering to the rafters, is how this Copperfield coheres into its own individual thing. It's that rare period drama that makes selective choices, rather than just trotting through the same old story again because this narrative has played well for several centuries. Sure, it deals in moments, but they're the moments that make us, and they're almost all memorable and cherishable; you know from a very early stage that this is a film you will revisit.

It's a bargain, too: two visions of England for the price of one. For starters, there is that of the original author: the individuals turning their backs on cold-hearted industry and striking out towards self-fulfilment; the parsing of an eccentric national character, punched up here via the casting of such singular performers as Tilda Swinton (as the donkey-shooing Betsey Trotwood), Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher (as Micawber and wife) and Hugh Laurie (as the distractible, head-in-clouds Mr. Dick, best paired with a kite). By the time the generally twitchy Ben Whishaw shuffles on as Uriah Heep, it's clear he will be competing to be only the fifth or sixth biggest weirdo on screen, however regrettable his haircut. In this regard, the film is Iannucci's vision, too, reclaiming the world as a stage to be filled with funny people and funnier bits of business. What made me chuckle more? The creditors making off with Micawber's possessions through open windows at the back and sides of shot? Or the scene in which a ravenous Copperfield sees a tempting plate of cakes repeatedly snatched from his grasp, which proves but an amuse-bouche for possibly the finest cake-eating sequence in 21st century cinema? (Again, this may point towards national character: is there some genetic correlation between eccentricity and low blood sugar? Does that explain Bake Off?) Iannucci and writing collaborator Simon Blackwell have isolated what's funny in the book and made it funnier still, whether by that casting, or their own sharp reframing and cutting. Perhaps more personal, too: they've yanked out what resonates most with them. When David tells Mr. Dick how "when I've been in the company of someone of strong character, their voice becomes lodged in my head", you can tell he, like anyone else who ever slid a highlighter over this line, might well have it in him to become a comedy writer. Even Iannucci's frenetic pacing, roughly 300% more breakneck than the average Downton wannabe, yields a poignant realisation: yes, this may be what was required to turn a 700-page novel into a 118-minute movie, but isn't this also how quickly our formative years seem to slip through our fingers? 

We spend much of this Copperfield saying hello and goodbye to people, though we're always happy to see them, and sad when we leave them behind, as good a litmus test when dealing with Dickens adaptations as it is in the real world when assessing potential friends. I don't say this lightly, but Sarah Crowe may yet have surpassed the casting jamboree she put on for Stalin, putting either a pip or a dandy of a performer in even the bitparts, and helping to facilitate a real coup with the title role. Even before you factor in the colour issue, it would be asking a lot of Patel to hold a film as skittish as this together, to endure the hail of custard pies being tossed around him and still seem to stand for something sincerely aspirational, as Dickens's Copperfield surely does. Yet one of recent cinema's legitimate pleasures has been watching a kid who seemed like an adorable human being but a shaky and self-conscious performer circa Slumdog grow into one of our most assured and versatile leading men. Patel is funny here: he aces the mimicry that's essential to both visions, a recognition on Dickens and Iannucci's part that you have to look and sound as if you know what you're doing to fit in within English society, even if - as the prominence of several current cabinet ministers attests - you really haven't a clue. Yet he's courteous with it, too: after appalling his actress sweetheart Dora (Morfydd Clark) with his promise to bring something to throw at her after her stage debut, he pulls out a nervy "flowers!". Early on in this Copperfield, the servant Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper, from This Country) observes of her young charge that "he digs for joy, that boy. Finds it, too." Patel has that quality in spades, and for all the sententious waffle written about the art and practice of cinema, sometimes making a movie can be as simple as that digging: cast the exact right actor to play a character who represents the best of us, and centre him in a world that is, from first to last, inclusive, outward-looking and optimistic. There are good reasons audiences are seeking sanctuary in it, this of all weeks. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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