It’s been a while since I’ve picked it up but watching this new adaptation of David Copperfield I was suddenly and vividly reminded of exactly why, above of all of Charles Dickens’ extensive and celebrated catalogue, I so admire a totally different novel to this one.
The thing is, that while Dickens is known for his wonderful, quirky and exaggerated characters personally I think his best works are the ones that don’t really have them, and this one has most of them. Seriously, if you asked a group of reasonably well read people to provide a list of Dickens’ ribald clowns, dotty relations and famous farceurs, I swear half of them would come from this book. Yep, it would be Fagin, Bumble, Dodger and Pickwick then Micawber, Uriah Heep, Mr. Dick, Betsy Trotwood and Peggotty.
If you look at Great Expectations though, the Dickens book that is my favourite, then you’ve got equally strong characterisation but they aren’t silly in the same way. Miss Haversham, Estella and Magwitch are all idiosyncratic representations of 19th century society but they are quite serious and you don’t react to them as a reader as you do those other fatuous figures.
When presenting something like David Copperfield for the screen then, you’ve got a lot of inevitably over the top performances to juggle. Director Armando Iannucci’s approach to this is to lean right into it. In fact, judging by his previous work, I am sure this is what attracted him to the project. This does give us some delightful individual performances from seasoned caricaturists like Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie and Paul Whitehouse beside other actors such as Ben Wishaw, Benedict Wong and Morfydd Clark matching them gurn for giggle. I can’t help but feel that under the weight of all of that affectation the story gets a little lost though. The Personal History of David Copperfield has some great parts but it is ultimately less than the sum of them.
None of this is to say that this isn’t a delightful evening out at the cinema but the balance that the source material achieves does not translate. The original novel, like so much of the author’s work, exposes a lot of the harsh realities of Victorian life but even though the beatings and the bottle factory still feature here, they don’t have the same impact. The stories greatest familial tragedies have been completely removed as well which also gives it all a much softer and more frivolous edge. This said, I did like the alternate way in which one of the ill fated characters was written out with out having to die as written.
Laughable as it all may be this film is still very clever. There are some brilliant scene changes and cuts and the design of everything is lovely. Credit also has to be given to Dev Patel for beautifully managing to be the straight(ish) man to all these fops. In the end, and acknowledging that as suggested there might always be particular difficulties with this book, it just didn’t match my precious Great Expectations, or indeed my personal ones.
The Ripley Factor:
It should be said that the only real voices of reason in the film are both women. Agnes and Clara do not invite ridicule or resentment in the same manner as almost every one else who appears. In fact Agnes actually saves the day with her resilience and intelligence though deeds that are not hers in the book but Micawber’s. This all goes along with my previous criticisms because the way Iannucci presents the man means you’d struggle to believe he had the wits. This character, of all those familiar from the source material, did not need to be so daft but daft was what the director was going for with as many players as he could. Still, Micawber’s loss is Agnes’ gain so that’s a win for feminism.