When 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!!
I 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.
A 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.
The 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.
My 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.
I 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.
Similarly, 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.
There 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.
The 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.
There 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.
Definitely 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.