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.