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…