Dickens Reinvented


A long-needed custard pie in the face.

How do we deal with Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist? After he’d written ‘The Thick Of It’, ‘In The Loop’ and ‘The Death of Stalin’, I thought I had him pegged as a politically-motivated writer more at ease with male characters (even in ‘Veep’ most of his women are basically men) and a dab hand at the caustic one-liner – so I wasn’t prepared for his next film.

‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ starts with his exhilarating opening shot of a Victorian audience composed of every race, and continues its colour blindness through Dickens’ episodic tale of the wide-eyed boy nobody names correctly. ‘I want to show that the work of Charles Dickens isn’t just quality entertainment for a long-dead audience,’ said Iannucci. ‘The characters he creates are as real and as psychologically driven as the inhabitants of any urban landscape today.’

Copperfield finds its perfect casting in Dev Patel, the innocent abroad who cannot become the hero of his own story until he stands up for himself. We have Nikki Amuka-Bird as the ghastly snobbish Mrs Steerforth, and Peter Capaldi’s delightful turn as Mr Macawber, hurtling past us coattails flying, forever chased by debtors, wife and children in tow, and Tilda Swinton proving a formidable Betsey Trotwood, thwacking the donkeys on her property, finding good in every downturn. Colourblind casting works beautifully at portraying the teeming melting pot of both Victorian and modern London – to see how badly it can be handled you only have to look at the travesty that was ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, where race and gender counter-casting merely provided a bit of virtue signalling on the sidelines.

How do you render down a gigantic picaresque epic into a manageable film form? The BBC had regularly fallen back on young Mr Copperfield to fill its Sunday afternoon dead spot, producing dry, literarily arch, dull-as-ditchwater six-parters that no-one really watched and which only had the effect of driving people away from the book (although a superb ‘Bleak House’ rearranged itself into half-hour episodes that mimicked chapters). And of course the other problem with Dickens apart from his way with sentiment is the sheer abundance of richness on display – so many characters, so much incident. Do you cut and cut, or try to cover everything, or perhaps dip in and out like a sketch revue?

Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell opt for the latter – it’s a Monty Pythonish route that chucks us in and out of scenes, stepping back from Dickens’ coincidence-ridden plot to allow the characters to be seen in all their obsessive glory, follies and foibles intact. This approach makes a star out of mentally opaque Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), fading in and out of the real world as he cheerfully follows David’s aunt about with his kite, and is only dropped for the scenes with Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw, a peculiarly brilliant type of British actor) which need a sense of burgeoning evil about them.

With comedy replacing sentiment and the darkness held back a little (the fates of some characters are lightened) we get a wholly uplifting, tumultuous riot of comedy instead of an over-respectful BBC adaptation. So close is the script’s mimicry of Dickens that I had trouble separating dialogue into lines from the book and updates by the scriptwriters. It’s a long-needed custard pie in the face, of which Dickens would surely have approved.



17 comments on “Dickens Reinvented”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    This really makes me want to see it, and I have a deep rooted hatred of Dickens, fostered by reading him at far too young an age. The only Dickens film I tolerate is The Muppets Christmas Carol, and even that comes down to Doomed Scrooge, doomed for all time…

  2. davem says:

    This looks excellent and a number of actors I enjoy watching.


  3. Roger says:

    ” Colourblind casting works beautifully at portraying the teeming melting pot of both Victorian and modern London – to see how badly it can be handled you only have to look at the travesty that was ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, where race and gender counter-casting merely provided a bit of virtue signalling on the sidelines.”

    Mary, Queen of Scots’, tried to depict 16th century Scotland as a society where some people just happened to be black in what was otherwise a cinematic version of “realism”. If you’re going to do Dickens, though, the first thing you do is throw realism and verisimilitude out of the window. Mind you, I still think of Micawber as W.C. Fields and only regret that he wasn’t allowed to juggle.

  4. admin says:

    Roger, this Macawber is somehow creepy and adorable, so that his final appearance sleeping rough breaks the heart.

    Liz, going home to Dickens is an act of closure. Not all of it is good but the parts that are are immensely moving.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Dickens himself is a difficult character, but I would go just to see Hugh Laurie playing Mr. Dick. We “did” Christmas Carol at age 12 when we didn’t even understand the women stripping Scrooge’s bedroom but my Mother and I read Tale of Two Cities the next year and probably enjoyed all the wrong parts. I’ve steered clear of The Old Curiosity Shop but perhaps I’m old enough to appreciate it now.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    The nearest I have got to Dickens was an amateur production of “The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of A Christmas Carol” by David McGillivray, Walter Zerlin Jr in Battle near Hastings. It was great fun to do. Cast of 4 women and 1 man playing all the parts. So a lot of cross dressing then! The joke is that everything that can go wrong in an amateur production does. I wonder if Mr F knows David McGillivray from his film days.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    The compulsory ploughing through Shakespeare and Dickens as a duty at school gives no one pleasure and the potential for a lifetime distaste. The theatre can change all that. In 1985(?), we saw the amazing adaptation of Nickleby at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was brilliant, in fact eight or nine hours of brilliance as I recall. And I realised that perhaps I had been missing something in Dickens. In spite of that, I’ve not read anymore of his books, though I have enjoyed some of the TV adaptations, notably Bleak House.

  8. John Howard says:

    Luckily we only got compulsory Shakespeare at my school and a good teacher who made it interesting. I suppose though, as a 12 year old, the fact that we did the nice and gory Merchant of Venice helped… all that “pound of flesh” etc. Dickens I was able to find for myself though, luckily.
    PS: The film looks the dogs. Thanks yet again Admin.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    To get children interested in the works of Shakespear, teachers should let them watch a movie. Not any of the Olivier ones, or the modern ones. No. The movie has to be 1973’s ‘Theatre Of Blood’. Vincent Price, at the top of his game, and Diana Rigg, both enjoying themselves immensely, as the supposedly dead actor, Edward Lionheart, and his daughter, killing theatre critics in various horrid ways described by Shakespeare in his plays. It’s a ridiculously entertaining film, of which I’m sure Shakspeare would have approved. And if you hate Poodles, even better.

  10. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, Brilliant film, and as you say best start for children.

    I saw this done on stage at the National a few years ago with Jim Broadbent playing the lead. He was very good.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Rats! Neither Theatre of Blood nor the first Bond film available at our library.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    However, Theatre of Blood is available in Vancouver as a double bill with Madhouse (?) So I can check it out between Christmas and New Years. Just the thing.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – ‘Madhouse’ (1974), is another Vincent Price movie, and it’s a good one, too. He plays a horror film actor, who played the character ‘Doctor Death’ in a series of movies, until he suffered a nervous breakdown. After he gets out of hospital, a series of killings take place, all based on scenes from his old movies…
    The movie also stars Peter Cushing, and Robert Quarry. It’s a good double bill with ‘Theatre Of Blood’.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Sounds like just the thing for Christmas week.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    The Signal Man makes a splendid Christmas Story, a nice chilling tale by a warm fire. The BBC version is rather good.


  16. Ian Luck says:

    ‘The Signalman’ is excellent, and Denholm Elliot is wonderful in the lead. Totally believable. I find something inherently creepy about railways, for some reason, especially abandoned ones. To this end, might I recommend a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entitled ‘The Lost Special’. It’s dark, clever, and as creepy as hell if you stop and think about it. Not a ghost story, but a supremely nasty one. It can be found in one of the brilliant British Library compilations edited by Martin Edwards. I’d tell you which one, but I don’t have any to hand, having given them to my local charity shop. Sorry.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, we’re watching a fellow walking the abandoned railways of Britain and the only creepy bit so far is the incredible echo in the longest tunnel, which is also a curved one, very creepy indeed.

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