New Life for David Copperfield
New life indeed. Armando Ianucci's new film 'The Personal History of David Copperfield' was a joy in the cinema. There's so much energy on screen that all the old cliches of Dickens on film fall by the wayside. Not that David Lean's 'Great Expectations' or Polanski's 'Oliver Twist' are to be sniffed at -- each of these is great in its own way, and certainly invigorated Dickens for their time. Of course, there was a great deal of Dickens energy in the musical 'Oliver!', with singing and dancing as well as some great acting along the way. The new David Copperfield has almost the same forward momentum and choreographed sweep and swerve, and manages to sidestep the gloom and misery that Dickens was certainly intent on portraying in his novels: in this film the bottle-factory (echo of Dickens' own time in the boot-blacking factory down on the banks of the Thames) is present -- it's just that the misery and unhappiness are not dwelled on in this film. The Dickens 'charicatures' as well are present, but Iannuci and his team have pulled off the marvelous feat of making them seem human and intelligible and not grotesques at all. Hugh Laurie's Micawber in particular brings us a long way from WC Field's comic turn of the distant past.
This is eminently a Dickens for the present moment. One of the features of the film is the sheer number of different names that Copperfield goes by. I'm not going to list them, but when you see the film you won't be able to miss the way everyone he meets gives him a new name. I suppose that in a film that employs colour-blind casting issues of identity are deliberately to the fore. Dev Patel's performance is quite charismatic and we see him at the centre of the whirlwind of a life that's happening around him -- it's curious then how Copperfield remains something of a cipher, as though he's the product of everyone that he meets, of everyone who projects upon him. Perhaps that's part of the design too.