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Naming Names - 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'

Naming Names - The Personal History of David Copperfield

Fresh from staking his claim to unearthing a rich vein of humour in the historical horror of The Death of Stalin, Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Armando Iannucci has re-imagined Charles Dickens’ tribute to grit and perseverance through the comedic lens of colour-blind casting, giving the narrative new life for a woke age. From birth to infancy, adolescence to adulthood, the remarkably good-hearted Copperfield experiences kindness and evil, wealth and poverty, physically embodied in a range of remarkable Victorian characters who take turns in the spotlight, with resplendent waistcoats and shining pocket watches. Determined to become a writer from an precocious age, he embarks upon a search not only for family, friendship, romance, and social status, but also a sense of self-identity.

Iannucci and writing partner Simon Blackwell offer a brightly jaunty corrective to those dour and dreary BBC costume dramas of the past, bringing a wryly compassionate style to our hero's quirky journey from impoverished orphan to successful author. As host of the hour-long Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens for the BBC in 2012, Iannucci explained, “I want to show that the work of Charles Dickens isn’t just quality entertainment for a long-dead audience.” Instead, he argued, “The characters he creates are as real and as psychologically driven as the inhabitants of any urban landscape today.” His rambunctious adaptation is a result of that conviction, an attempt to rescue the novelist from the musty category of “great literature” and reintroduce him as a rapid-fire, ahead-of-his-time, and highly popular wit.

Iannucci’s most radical and revisionist choice lies in the casting, based on his belief that the title role could only be played by Dev Patel, the London-born star of Slumdog Millionaire. It may have been an unconventional choice, but one that transposes the diversity of contemporary England onto an earlier narrative. Dickens’ work focuses so much on social opportunity and class that Iannucci's decision could be considered as a commentary on Copperfield’s status as an orphan and outsider, although that does not appear to have been his intent. Instead, Patel simply brings an intense likability to the role of the modest-born and self-effacing innocent who eventually takes control of his own narrative. Placing him at its fulcrum also opens up room for other minority actresses like Rosalind Eleazar and Nikki Amuka-Birda to shine.

Iannucci (who is also responsible for I'm Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, Veep, and In the Loop) has artfully assembled his cast with an inclusivity that allows him to broaden the social scope of his film beyond that of less daring adaptations. Following Patel's lead, the supporting ensemble cast put in uniformly stellar performances. Sarah Crowe (nominated for Bafta’s new casting award) has surrounded him with a diverse array of performances, from Benedict Wong's boozy Mr Wickfield and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter Agnes to Tilda Swinton's Betsey Trotwood, who is first introduced with her nose squished up against a windowpane. Amuka-Bird brings rigour to the stern figure of Mrs Steerforth, Darren Boyd’s ghastly Mr Murdstone provides a sinister symphony of chiseled chin, hairy eyebrows, and incandescent teeth, while Peter Capaldi plays Mr Micawber as a benevolent Fagin with sub-standard musical talent (“Angels in his fingertips!” inists Bronagh Gallagher’s cheery Mrs Micawber). But it is Ben Whishaw’s unctuous Uriah Heep who steals the show with a disturbingly Dostoyevskian amalgam of subservient subversion. He creeps along corridors with his pudding-bowl haircut like a sociopathic Lurch. In contrast, Patel radiates rainbows of Chaplin's Everyman charm, whether wooing the entirely inappropriate Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark, who doubles as his mother Clara), or carousing in a drunken binge with the toffs whose acceptance he craves.

Iannucci begins by stressing the dramatic nature of his movie, presenting the successful author reading on stage. As he starts to recite his “personal history,” Copperfield suddenly strides through a painted backdrop straight into a vividly realised version of nineteenth-century East Anglia. Iannucci re-employs such devices repeatedly with scenes falling away like tarpaulin backdrops, memories projected on to walls, and sections interspersed by handwritten chapter-headings, all part of a lineage here that can be traced from Bertolt Brecht, through Lindsey Anderson, to Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation, A Cock & Bull Story. Iannucci plays similarly fast and loose with the creative process, displaying a keen eye for visual storytelling as the adult Copperfield witnesses his own birth, comes face to face with his boyish younger selves, and learns to weave characters in and out of his life as he inscribes a “written memory wherein loss and love live for ever side by side.”

Like an old Monty Python sketch, Iannucci alternates between intellect and absurdity, interweaving high and low brow elements. This approach is perfectly complemented by carnivalesque, constantly off-kilter way in which cinematographer Zac Nicholson immerses himself in the action, energetically covering scenes from within, whipping the Steadicam around to follow the action. His wide-angle lenses capture a child’s-eye sense of awe and wonder (stretching out single moments in oneiric slow-mo similar to Nicola Pecorini’s work on Gilliam’s Tideland), while Mick Audsley's editing transports us seamlessly from scene to scene and decade to decade, despite close-up camera moves that require frequent and jarring jumps across the proscenium line. Maybe this is intended as another Brechtian distancing device, maybe it's just improvising.

The anarchic spirit of Terry Gilliam haunts such surreal scenes as the capsized boat-house of rose-tinted childhood memory, shattered by a giant hand when fantasy gives way to reality. Cristina Casali and Charlotte Dirickx’s production design and set decoration evoke an extremely strong sense of place - geographical, temporal, and emotional - from the bucolic warmth of Yarmouth to the cluttered chaos of the bottle factory. The opening and closing theatre scenes were filmed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the last remaining Regency theatre in the UK, while Kingston Upon Hull's Old Town, Yorkshire, was used for a large part of location filming. The Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, where Dickens once stayed and set part The Pickwick Papers, is also featured.

After casting, Iannucci's next big decision was how to condense Dickens’ roughly 600-page novel into something fast-paced enough to prove his point about how funny Dickens can be. Rather than updating the semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, described by its author as “a favourite child” among all his novels, he brings a contemporary sensibility to the Victorian setting similar to Tony Richardson’s madcap adaptation of Tom Jones with its in-on-the-joke narrator and assorted postmodern touches (both films feature a sped-up, silent-movie sequence). Iannucci and Blackwell work wonders with the labyrinthine twists and turns of Dickens’ original, upping the absurdity of their source material and conjuring up a cinematic odyssey as accessible as it is smart, amusing, and unexpected. At its heart lies a theatrical journey of self-discovery, in which our protagonist sets out to determine whether he is “the hero of my own story” as he struggles to make a professional name for himself. Variously dubbed Daisy, Doady, Trotwood, Davidson, and even “the famous biting boy,” but with writerly ambitions from a young age, he always aspires to claim his rightful name of David Copperfield.

While the material’s literary origins confer a certain respectability to the experience, so does Iannucci and Blackwell’s penchant for playing with simple idiomatic phrases, converting them into complex, crossword-puzzle clues. When asked if he is homeless, Micawber cheerily replies, “We do primarily exist alfresco. Every meal is a picnic!” Opportunities for slapstick humour are never far away either and Iannucci embraces them all with enthusiasm. Swinton’s Aunt Betsey, for instance, violently enforces a no-donkeys-allowed policy over her front garden - a detail lifted straight from the novel that makes the book’s comedic undercurrents impossible to ignore: “The one great outrage of her life, demanding to be constantly avenged, was the passage of a donkey over that immaculate spot.” Swinton often plays eccentric roles, but seldom is she this consistently amusing. Affably complemented by Laurie’s half-mad Mr Dick, she is the film’s most reliable source of off-guard laughs, from the opening scene (present for David’s birth, she wishes desperately that her nephew will be born a girl) to the indignant way she dismisses the patronizing Heep - “I’m not ‘someone in my circumstances’.”

The pervading tone is considerably more upbeat and less caustic than that which we have come to expect from Iannucci, though there is still no mistaking his own distinct authorial voice, constantly challenging us to figure out which details belong to Dickens and which have been invented. He often returns to the motif that Copperfield is gathering string for the publication of his “Personal History,” scrawling stray thoughts and catchy vernacular on scraps of paper - which suggest the origins of quotations that, more often than not, do not appear in the novel, but might have. Like lawyers, wills, inheritances, and illegally usurped legacies, meals are always important moments in Dickens as food (or the lack of it) indicates social status. Another recurring gag adopted directly from the book is the way in which every character has a different nickname for the hero. Aunt Betsey calls him “Trotwood Copperfield,” upper-crust school chum Steerforth dubs him “Daisy,” while future wife Dora favors “Doady.”

For much of the film, Copperfield finds himself somewhat lost and perplexed amidst all these conflicting prospective identities, but at one significant moment he manages to assert, “I am David Copperfield,” which amounts to both a declaration of identity and an epiphany of independence. Like all great stories, this is a wonderfully entertaining film based on a search of self-discovery. It manages not only to respect and reinvent the original novel, but also create something entirely new and invigorating in an adaptation that fizzes with fantastic comic performances. Everyone is clearly having great fun and Iannucci's infectious style injects a zany, dizzying shot of adrenaline into a movie that never lets up for its entire two hour running time.

Once we get over the humour of Dickens' character names, much of the fun lies in the sheer long-windedness of his descriptions, for which he was paid by the word. Iannucci is obliged to find tighter cinematic equivalents. Where so many of the Dickens' miniseries were maudlin, he simply breezes through such upsetting scenes as when Murdstone tries to thrash David and winds up chasing him around the bedroom, upsetting a chamber pot in the process, or his subsequent abusive treatment at the bottle factory, where a parrot-like foreman echoes the last few words that come out of his boss’ mouth. While there is plenty of pathos to be found in the book (“I had been more miserable than I thought anybody could believe,” Copperfield says at one point), anything potentially tragic comes closely entwined with laughter in the movie, which studiously avoids any lapse into sentimentality.

Filmed during the hot, dry summer of 2018, it was finally premiered in Canada in September 2019 and theatrically released in the UK in January 2020. The reason for the long delay was to avoid the congestion of big box office releases over Summer and Christmas and it became clear that the final edit was not going to be ready in time for a mass release in Autumn 2019. January/February is often considered a good time to release smaller independent, art-house films due to the lack of competition from the major studios in that period and the dominance they will have in terms of publicity and theatrical screen availability. It was decided early on to release it in other countries during similar quiet periods or when there was some expected screen availability in that territory.

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