Review – The Personal History of David Copperfield, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th February 2020

DC PosterWhen I saw the trailer for this film a couple of weeks ago, my eyes turned away with horror. What on Earth were they doing with my beloved David Copperfield? It’s one of my all-time favourite books; and a TV dramatisation in the early 1970s was pivotal in my growing-up process. When the recently widowed Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle turned to the 12 year old me and asked if I’d mind if she ever remarried, my mind went to thoughts of Mr Murdstone (as I presumed all stepfathers are wicked like him) and I asked her please not to. As a consequence, she remained on her own for the rest of her life and I think never really forgave me for that. I was only 12 goddammit!!

Dev PatelI digress, as I so often do. But I felt like challenging myself into watching what was obviously not going to be a traditional, faithful re-telling of Dickens’ novel. How much of a purist would I be, when it comes to David Copperfield? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Armando Iannucci has picked up a copy of the book, ripped some of the pages out, sellotaped some of them back in the wrong order, drawn a few cartoons in the side margins, given it a good shake up and then made a film of it.

Anna Maxwell Martin, Dev PatelA deliberately quirky film at that. At first, I found I was really enjoying its freshness and unstuffiness. Then it occurred to me that I was actively hating it, with its comic-strip silliness, grotesque characterisations, omission of characters and storylines, and rather self-conscious cleverness. Then, towards the end, when I started to understand (I think) what the film was trying to do (I believe) it started to grow on me, and I ended up having a grudging admiration for it. That’s a pretty exhausting two hours for an audience member.

Dev Patel addressing the theatreThe film starts with Copperfield addressing an audience in a theatre; he’s clearly going to tell them his life story. The novel starts with the same words – the adult Copperfield introducing an account of his life and adventures to his readership. So, a few liberties taken there, but acceptable. However, when the adult Copperfield suddenly appears at the side of his new-born baby self, you know you’re going to have to widen your imaginations to take this all in. And sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes it isn’t.

Paul Whitehouse and Anthony WelshMy sympathy with the film ran out with the development of the character of Mr Murdstone, played by Darren Boyd. As you’ll appreciate from my opening paragraph, I have a very firm understanding of what Murdstone is all about. He’s a cruel, ruthless, vindictive, utter swine of a man. However, whilst Darren Boyd’s Murdstone was comfortable with handing out the punishment and assuming control over the household – he was played like a pantomime villain. More Abanazar than a Bastard. Horrible? Yes. But a seriously evil, despicable specimen of toxic masculinity? Naaah. Or, Oh no he wasn’t, in pantomime terms. I couldn’t take the performance seriously because he didn’t.

Tilda SwintonI also wasn’t impressed (although I appreciate I am a lone voice here) with Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of Betsey Trotwood. Again, it was too cartoon-like; a grotesquerisation (I just invented that word) of a character who has her foibles but is essentially kind. You had to look very hard to find much in the way of kindness in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I sense the decision was made to accentuate the slightly unbalanced comedy of the character. But you don’t need Betsey Trotwood to be slightly unbalanced when you have Mr Dick by her side, who is unbalanced enough for both of them. By contrast, I thought Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick was pretty much the best performance in the film, expressing his good-natured puzzlement at the way his brain worked, and his childish delight at the simple pleasures of life.

Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Dev PatelSimilarly, Peter Capaldi’s Micawber was purely played for laughs; you didn’t get a sense of his and his wife’s kindness or generosity with what little they had, but just that he was a money-centric reprobate who was only interested in Copperfield for what they could get out of him. As for Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep, he simply changed from ‘umble servant to embezzling boss without any sense of how or why he got there.

Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh LaurieThere was no Tommy Traddles; no Dan Peggotty or Barkis, willin’ or otherwise; Rosa Dartle was concatenated into the character of Mrs Steerforth. Creakle and Tungay have been moved from Salem House school to running the wine bottle factory. In a Bowdlerised quest to eliminate the darker sides of the book, Dora doesn’t die – she just asks Copperfield to write her out of the book, her father doesn’t die from a heart attack in his carriage, and Ham doesn’t die in his rescue attempt at sea. There’s many a missed opportunity to dig just a little deeper into Dickens’ text – but that’s not the point of the film, quite the reverse.

Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel, Tilda SwintonThe point of the film – as I see it – is Copperfield’s re-imagining and re-living his own experiences in a way that he wants to remember them, which isn’t necessarily how they actually happened. He doesn’t want to dwell on people’s deaths. He doesn’t want to wallow in the misery of the wine bottle factory. He doesn’t want to explore the motivations of people who don’t particularly interest him. On the other hand he does want to emphasise how lovely Agnes is (one of the better performances and characterisations in the film from Rosalind Eleazar), he does want to stress the heroism of Ham, he does want to reflect on his own friendship with Peggotty (presumably that’s why he’s not sharing her with Barkis). This makes Copperfield the essential egotist – and I can have some sympathy with that characterisation.

At home with the HeepsThere are some nice moments; the Trotwood household trying to keep Mr Wickfield away from the drinks cabinet, Micawber’s creditors trying to steal his rug from underneath the door frame, Mrs Heep’s heavy cake. There are some delightful cameos from Anna Maxwell Martin as Mrs Strong, Rosaleen Linehan as the hideous but helpless Mrs Gummidge, and a superb performance from Jairaj Varsani as the young David Copperfield. The one scene where the device of having the adult Copperfield intruding on his younger days really worked was in that very moving moment where Adult David tells Young David not to worry – everything will be alright. Which of us hasn’t at some point imagined what we would say to our younger selves with the benefit of retrospect? And then of course there is the central performance by Dev Patel – engaging, humorous, decent (on the whole) – everything in fact that you’d expect from a performance by Dev Patel.

Ben WhishawDefinitely a challenge for the purist – but it’s good to be challenged. A re-imagining of David Copperfield for today’s busy, instant return on investment, generation. You can imagine the creative team’s vision for the film. “Cut 950 pages to the quick and give me the bare bones, and none of that slow-building, motivation-observing nonsense. No sorrow, no guilt, just give me donkeys. I want to laugh at Dickensian characters and I want it now.” Well, I think they achieved that.

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 1st September 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha PapaKnowing me, Mr Chrisparkle, knowing you, gentle reader, A-HA! Sorry, couldn’t resist that. If you don’t know what that refers to, then obviously you’re not a fan of the early Alan Partridge, in which case I am slightly wondering why you are interested in an opinion about his latest and indeed only film, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa”. If Alan Partridge is a new comic creation to you, then you ought to know that he’s a narcissistic knob who was once a sports reporter on Radio Norwich, then promoted beyond his capabilities to host his own dire chat show, but who today is propping up the airwaves on some backwater station called North Norfolk Digital with the show “Mid Morning Matters”. If you have loved all Mr Partridge’s TV and radio appearances over the last twenty years you will know that, depending on the script, this would be either 0% or 100% hilarious.

Alan Partridge100% it is. North Norfolk Digital is being bought out by a media conglomerate with no feeling for its slightly more middle-aged audience, and is only interested in yoof breakfast shows fronted by a smarmy young git who deplores anything aged over 23. Alan is confident that the new regime will respect his broadcasting gifts and keep him on the payroll, but aging DJ colleague Pat Farrell, played by Colm Meaney, fears it’s the end for him and his night-time radio snoozathon. Realising that it’s either Pat or Alan who has to go, Alan betrays Pat to the radio board, Pat gets sacked and Alan keeps his job. However, Pat doesn’t take this lying down and holds half the radio station staff hostage in a bizarre shotgun siege, and Alan is sent in to negotiate. Enough plot summary – you’ll have to watch the film to see how it works out.

North Norfolk DigitalAs you might have guessed it’s a double spoof – not only the whole Alan Partridge/North Norfolk Digital thing (alas I have to break it to you that neither really exist) but also of the Hollywood hostage siege genre with Alan as a kind of East Anglian Bruce Willis. In many respects it’s quite a moral story – a criticism of big business barging its way into the everyday lives of ordinary people whom it is happy to destroy without any consideration for the personal fallout. However, with Alan Partridge at the helm, any moral turpitude is likely to stem from him. You’ll be delighted to know that his character is still as full of questionable taste, supreme arrogance, woeful ineptitude, pathetic cowardice, absurd prejudice, schoolboy smut and utter hypocrisy as ever he was.

Felicity MontaguIt’s stacked full of LOL moments, many of them surprisingly subtle and under-egged so that it has a great lightness of touch and you never feel that one joke is being milked beyond its capacity. Whether it’s his escaping through a window only for his trousers and pants to get caught on the latch, or his hiding (literally) in a toilet there’s lots of physical comedy as well as that created from his character flaws and interactions with everyone else. There are some great performances from the supporting cast – Felicity Montagu is terrific as his long-suffering PA Lynn, all dolled up when she has to front the media, and there’s the unexpected pleasure of seeing Anna Maxwell Martin as the no-nonsense officer in charge of the police operation, visibly stretching Alan’s distrust of women in power.

Colm MeaneyA quick mention also to the great use of music in the film; regrettably Alan’s and my tastes in music coincide quite a lot, and seeing his totally uninhibited singalong to the radio in the car with full use of steering wheel bongos reminded me just how stupid I must look sometimes. The use of John Farnham’s “You’re The Voice” was brilliant and I bopped in my cinema seat something dreadful. So if you’re a Partridge fan, you’re going to love this film. I could easily imagine it being severely embarrassing if it had been dogged with a poor script, but instead it’s very well written, beautifully put together and extremely funny.