London Film Festival Review: The Personal History Of David Copperfield
The Pitch: What? The Dickens?
The Review: Modern society is desperate to work out what kind of person you are. But beware, it has only a few descriptions with which to allow you to be labelled. Complexity be damned, on any issue of the day you’ll be lucky if more than two opinions are permissible. The United Kingdom is being inexorably drawn into a time when you must be in favour or opposed to everything. Never mind leaving the European Union, it doesn’t feel as if you can be ambivalent to Marmite these days. Love it or hate it? Them’s your choices, don’t darken this door again with mild admiration or moderate disgust.
Armando Iannucci arrives at his latest film bearing the label of ‘political satirist’, and while it’s a fair description to a point, it comes riding in on an unspoken implication that he’s incapable of anything else. Let’s dispel that label for a start; while it’s true he’s responsible for some of the most scathing, hilarious and unfortunately accurate commentary of the last couple of decades, at the heart of it teems a desire to understand people, to sympathise with the unfortunate and to stare disbelievingly at the grotesque characters that reflect the wider world.
On that basis, it should come as no surprise that Iannucci finds the works of Charles Dickens appealing. Dickens was to the social classes of his era what Iannucci is to the chattering politicians of ours, and their worlds are similarly populated by absurd, outlandish characters that repulse and delight in equal measure. Iannucci and his regular co-collaborator Simon Blackwell have plunged headfirst into Dickens’ world and come up with an adaptation of the writer’s most personal work that feels fresh and vibrant.
Let’s talk about another label that’s cropped up in coverage of this film: “colour-blind”. It’s an odd, almost derogatory term that suggests there is some issue in casting the best people, even if they don’t all conform to the standard casting call for a period picture. How about “meritocracy” instead? The film’s casting is generally applaudable and even the smaller roles are often filled out with faces such as Gwendoline Christie and Paul Whitehouse whose talents brighten even the slender amount of screen time they’re granted.
In being fairly faithful to Dickens’ plot structure and character roster, it also allows for a number of larger roles to make their mark. Chief among these are donkey-obsessed aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and her Charles I-obsessed living companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). Swinton gets to mix her initial brusqueness with a pleasing warmth as time passes, and Laurie’s initial fragility gives way to a mannered, boyish charm, both of whom prove ideal foils for Copperfield and the menagerie of other characters. Peter Capaldi’s Micawber also brightens every scene he appears in, and the comic timing of not only these three, but most of the cast, is so exemplary you could set your watch by it.
There are but two minor disappointments: Ben Whishaw’s obsequious Uriah Heep sneers from under his bowl haircut but never quite provides the foil to add great drama, which the film needs to balance the whimsy and otherwise excellent character work. The other is Copperfield himself, and that’s nothing to do with Dev Patel’s strong, evolving portrayal, more that Copperfield feels absent from the centre of his own story, despite being almost constantly on screen.
It’s structure where this adaptation struggles, with the social observation and coterie of contemptuous figures that flit in and out of David’s life present and correct, but never quite the sure footing of narrative to keep the audience fully invested. Iannucci and Blackwell have softened a few of Dickens’ sharper decisions, partly to allow Copperfield to comment on his own story as he develops as a writer. But devices like this don’t feel as if they carry a full commitment, and the visual trickery of hands reaching into drawings or the story projected on walls is forgotten about for a long stretch in the first half. The gimmicks don’t elevate or elucidate the story in any way, and a stage bound framing device might offer a further connection to Dickens but also feels oddly out of place.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield is very keen to work out what kind of person its hero is, but it’s slightly less sure as to how it’s going to go about it. If I were to offer a few labels to apply, they’d include “delightful”, “heart-warming” and “refreshing”. If the whole isn’t quite the sum of its parts, the parts are still worth parting with two hours to enjoy.
Why see it at the cinema: Glorious scenery, with Iannucci making the most of a variety of parts of the British countryside, and a film that does offer a lot of laughs, so is best enjoyed with as much company as possible.
What about the rating? Rated PG for mild violence, threat and brief bloody images. Absolutely fair and nothing to concern most ages.
My cinema experience: The first gala press screening of the 2019 London Film Festival, so I joined several hundred other critics and industry types for an early morning screening. After a year off while it was refurbished, the Odeon Leicester Square once again plays host to such screenings, and I took a reasonably comfortable reclining seat on the front row of the balcony. Also nice to see that the cinema had opened the coffee bar early so I took advantage of a latte and a decent chocolate muffin for breakfast.
The refurbishment has reduced the capacity from around 2,000 to just 800 but both the environment and the seating are significantly improved. The same cannot be said for the audio-visual experience: angles from wide seats are a little improved but the audio is still sometimes muffled by the cavernous space, with quiet dialogue being a particular issue. I passed an engineer on the way out with a Dolby laptop, so I’m hoping the later public screening may have been tweaked slightly.
The film itself represented a slightly odd experience: the stalls were full, and while the film got a number of big laughs from down below, there was an eerie silence from the assembled masses in the balcony. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I guess.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Number 22… is alive! Your move, creeps.
The Review: The cinema of my childhood was defined by two very different film watching experiences. That’s if you can call it cinema, as the demise of picture palaces in my home town saw me watch most of my films on the technological wonder that was VHS. Some of that was made up of the typical family fare that was a staple of popular cinema in the Eighties, from The Karate Kid to Flight Of The Navigator and The Goonies to Short Circuit. As the decade drew to a close I was allowed by my very liberal mother to take in some of the action greats of the decade before I’d reached the 18 rating recommended, such as Aliens and Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. I suspect, although he’s half a decade younger than me and from the other end of the world, that Neill Blomkamp may have had a similarly formative childhood, given that his latest film appears to be an attempt to splice together those two genres by combining the family friendly robot education of Short Circuit with the corporate satire and blood-letting of Robocop.
Normally I’d suggest it’s fairly reductive and not particularly helpful to boil a film down to such obvious constituent components, but Blomkamp seems to be going out of his way to remind us of the heritage of his film. While it’s thrust into the same milieu as his breakout film District 9 with the South African slums providing a stark backdrop, there’s more than a little feeling of Old Detroit about the wasteland hideout of the gangsters who take in Chappie and try to give him an unsuitable education. Even the ED-209 style robots that form the bulkier competition in the security robot industry have the voice of old Tinhead himself, Peter Weller. On the flipslide, Chappie (Sharlton Copley) is a South African accent and a set of wheels away from being Johnny Five and while the film’s conceit of what would happen if you dropped a learning robot into the wrong environment feels original, the patchwork from which it’s been composed verges on over-familiar.
But you want original? How about making two of your lead characters a South African rap duo Die Antwoord who are friends and fans of the director with no real acting experience? As security droid Chappie falls under the influence of Yolandi and Ninja, he’s torn by the basic morality given to him by his creator (Dev Patel, yet another example of a single genius creating artificial intelligence in film making you wonder why we even bother to have corporations, but I digress). At the same time, the audience is torn by wondering if casting two non-actors as the two main human leads in your film is brave or foolish, and it’s probably a bit of both. Ninja and fellow cohort Yankie (actual actor Jose Pablo Cantillo) feel like stock villains, but Yolandi adds some maternal instinct and warmth and the gangster trio are certainly quirky for this kind of film, if not always particularly appealing. Adding to that off-kilter feeling is the fact that Die Antwood’s music is playing regularly in the background – although complemented well by the hard work that Hans Zimmer’s score does to integrate it – and what you’re left with is a whole bunch of oddness to offset the familiarity.
I wouldn’t say that there was much else original about Chappie – the other prominent humans (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) are stock characters and for a long stretch, the story doesn’t progress in any surprising directions. There’s a weak grasp of science, some of the dialogue – especially most of what Weaver is lumbered with for exposition and pretty much anything Patel says – is corny and unbelievable and Blomkamp applies many of District 9’s worst flaws, such as reality TV overlays that he promptly forgets about, without being able to capture its most redeeming features. The film makes a genuine attempt to combine the sweetness and naivety of Short Circuit with the satirical violence and grunge of Robocop, and not for one minute does it ever look like working. It’s only in the last half hour or so when the warmth begins to shine through that Chappie feels like a worthwhile exercise, and even then there’s as much to be at best bemused by as there is to love. Chappie is eccentric, oddly sweet and unlike the work of any other big-budget film maker you’ll see today, and for that we should be grateful, but District 9 is feeling more and more a one-off than the start of a solid career and Blomkamp will have to do more to convince that he’s not headed for a career residing at the bottom of the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket.
Why see it at the cinema: Blomkamp does make good use of his frame and films his action well, even if there’s probably less of it than in either of his previous films. If South African rap-rave soundtracks are your thing, then hearing them on a top quality cinema sound set-up is also not to be sniffed at. (Based on this evidence, I can take them or leave them.)
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and bloody violence. There is one stand out moment of violence at the end which feels almost incongruous against some of what’s come before, although it would have felt right at home in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop. I’d buy that for a dollar.
My cinema experience: Saw this at on a weekday evening at The Light cinema in Cambridge. The joys of the film playing on a large screen at The Light are that I get a seat in the middle of a row with enough legroom to sit comfortably: if you change anything as part of your takeover of the cinema, The Light owners, please keep that legroom, it’s invaluable for lanky so-and-sos such as myself.
About two thirds of the way into the film, I became distracted when someone in the row in front had seemingly become bored of the film and took his phone out to check Facebook. In my book if you’re that unengaged by what you’re watching there’s just one think you need to do: leave. On politely asking the gentleman if he would turn off his phone, I got sworn at for my trouble. I’m sorry, whoever you are, that you felt personally affronted by me asking you to turn off a four inch square torch that you were shining in the middle of a darkened room which immediately took me out of my own viewing experience, but if you believe it’s OK to sit and check your social media during a film then can I politely ask you don’t watch the same films as me in future?
The Score: 6/10