What The Dickens #film #review #davidcopperfield

Confession no. 1 I like Armando Iannucci’s work, especially the Death of Stalin which shouldn’t be funny but was. The Thick of It grew on me too, once Malcolm Tucker’s gratuitous yet oddly twee swearing became just part of the scenery.

Confession no. 2 I like a lot of Dickens work, at least on my second coming to it. At school it was the pits, in my thirties Dickens had evidentially worked hard at his prose and he was writing splendid if essentially overlong stories.

If you combine these two confessions you reach the sad conclusion that for all its fine points The Personal History of David Copperfield is neither baked nor unbaked yet not half baked. What I’m struggling to say is bits are beautifully cooked and parts as stodgy and soggy as a cube of school blancmange.

Take the start. Having the actor who plays the older Copperfield narrating his birth, because that’s the device Dickens uses in his book really doesn’t work on screen. It’s Pythonesque. Also the young actor who plays young Copperfield isn’t that good so a third of the film drags a little when he’s on screen being berated or cheeky, like watching a 1970s add for fruit pastels where the children aren’t so much wooden as fossilised.

I’m being harsh, I know. This film has rightly been praised for its ensemble casting and, yes, it’s tremendous. Tilda Swinton is the best as she swings from determined to demented and back. Peter Capaldi’s Micawber makes him more sly than I think Dickens intended (that maybe because he leers rather a lot) but it’s a polished portrayal. Hugh Laurie’s turn as Mr Dick, someone gripped by delusional madness is extraordinary and very poignant in a film that is chasing laughs amongst the grimmery that coats everything Dickens in the popular consciousness and often holds sway here, too. Ben Whishaw is probably the best for me as the Unctuous usurper Uriah Heap. He is evil, truly while the other villains are comic book rather than rounded characters.

And what of Dev Patel as Copperfield the man? He has exactly the right combination of beguiling innocence, self awareness and ingrained hope to make him a fine choice. He is watchable and there’s depth there too when he realises his school friend Staniforth has stolen the betrothed of Ham by dazzling her with his class. He is distraught. He is fine yet…

Before I saw the film I read a lot about its colour blind casting, almost eulogising Iannucci for what he’s done here. Patel’s colour matters not – we never know his father so how do we know what this Copperfield would look like? Staniforth though, whose mother is black and he is white is almost studied and feels like a test of the films credentials. There are other examples. Do they intrude? Yes and no, but do they ‘work’? If by that one might mean, does it feel like a real portrayal of real people? No it fails dismally. If you’re having a black Hamlet and feel free, just don’t have a white Gertrude. It just leaves questions when you should be focused on the play or film or whatever.

That pretty much sums up for me why this doesn’t work, not completely. It’s not coherent. Semi baked. If Sisyphus cooked, it would represent his soufflé… so near…

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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21 Responses to What The Dickens #film #review #davidcopperfield

  1. Thanks for this Geoff, it’s one I’ve been wanting to see. Hugh Laurie being a favourite of mine, he’s such a good actor. So yes I’ll be seeing this for sure 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yvonne says:

    I liked it. I hadn’t actually read anything about the film before I went, so had no expectations, except that perhaps I thought it was just going to be period drama in the usual sense. I didn’t mind the “colour blind” casting, once I’d realised that’s what it was, and overall enjoyed the humour as well as the points it made about class, greed etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Now, you’ve got me thinking about Death of Stalin which I loved and need to see again. And I do love Laurie–might try to see this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The colorblind casting would put me off as well. Genes are genes and when one is making a movie it is all well and good to be neutral on appearances in spite of the phony spirt that takes away from the art. In doing this one has to own up to the failed perception of being genuine. Supr review, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I prefer to have Dickens kept true to type and Victorian. I will just re-read the book and do my own imagining of the people therein.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I must have fallen out of the upcoming movie loop. I didn’t realize there had been a remake. You have made me curious enough to go see it. Thanks. As for the color blind casting sometimes it really works, sometimes it is a distraction seemingly done to prove how PC everyone is.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Copperfield isn’t one of my favourite books so I was going to give it a miss. But now I need to find out for myself what I think of this ‘colour blind’ take on it. Right now I feel uncomfortable about it simply because that wasn’t how the book was written. It’s all pasty white English of varying classes with some superb characterisations and some overblown ones and some who stay a bit namby pamby…… Having expressed that I can also confess I feel that it is interesting to see another’s take on a story. We rarely ever see a book bought to screen in its original condition. Thanks for another thought provoking preview Geoff.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. trifflepudling says:

    I enjoyed it very much but it was a bit too frenetic and I dropped off for about 10 seconds towards the end! Also spent some of the time trying to work out whether Dev had had a nose job or not (shallow). I really didn’t notice Steerforth’s mother, surprisingly, as I was expecting to be a bit aggravated by box-ticking. The film helped me look at the colour-blind casting in a different way. First of all there is the lovely Dev and then I thought, well if it were a school production there would be a mixed set of people to choose from and nobody would bat an eyelid if somebody’s mother was a different colour. And after all, it’s just a story. I very much liked Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Rosalind Eleazar in their roles, but got a bit confused that David’s mother and Dora were played by the same person.
    I’ve never read David Copperfield but knew there was supposed to be someone called Barkis (who was willing) in it, but he never appeared. I had the same unread copy in my bookcase for so long that the binding crumbled and it had to be put it in the recycling…

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Glad you Enjoyed it. Still didn’t work for me. Sure it can but really you can’t compare the vicissitudes of a school play cobbling Tigerettes a cast and the millions Iannucci had to spread about!! Also the more I think about it the less Capaldi worked as Micawber. He’s meant to be naively optimistic not a knowing conman. Nope, a great book, not a great film…

      Like

      • trifflepudling says:

        I know, but it’s just a mind-set thing. Not having read the book probably made a difference. I liked the rackety side of Dickens that was brought out, garish Victoriana.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. “It just leaves questions when you should be focused on the play or film or whatever.” My thoughts on the mixed casting of stuff as well, though I think it could work if you knew the film was like that going in.

    Liked by 1 person

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