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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Year: 2019
Production Co: FilmNation Entertainment
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Armando Iannucci/Simon Blackwell/Charles Dickens
Cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Gwendoline Christie, Ben Wish, Benedict Wong

A lot of critics loved this film because co-writer/director Armando Iannucci made it unselfconsicously colourblind, casting people from multiple races while at the same time not making a big, Hollywood woke-style big deal about it.

It's a welcome change and flies in the face of generations of big studio system wisdom about who audiences will go to see on movie screens. In a way it's an extension of the way Marvel has popularised the 'if you can see it you can be it' mindset, where minorities and people not usually presented as heroes or protagonists can finally relate.

Unfortunately, there's a fatal flaw. Just like in adaptations of Shakespeare it loses a lot if you're not familiar with Dickens' stories – literature a lot of both educated people and Brits know and understand the intent of. It's probably no coincidence that the most glowing reviews I saw were from UK critics, the crossroads between being literate and British. The appeal was probably partly in seeing how a filmmaker as good as Iannucci and his actors would interpret characters people already loved, a bit like the success behind the Harry Potter movies.

All I know about Charles Dickens is that he wrote about the grinding poverty of the financial underclass in England's early industrial era, a land of workhouses, smoke-belching factories, street urchins and the constant race for survival. So I had no forewarning of what to think about certain characters, and consequently I think there was something missing in the translation.

David (Dev Patel) is born to a widowed mother, growing up with her but also spending time living with his beloved nanny and her noisy but loving family in an upside down boat on the beach at Yarmouth.

When he returns home after one such trip to find his mother has married a strict man who – along with his sister/David's new Aunt – treats him terribly, shipping him off to work in a London bottling factory the family owns. While there, he lives with the boisterous Micawmber family, led by Peter Capaldi, a loving and spirited man who's also constantly broke and being pursued by creditors.

He rebels against the grinding strictures of the bottle factory after learning his mother has died, hightailing it to the country to live with his nutty Aunt, played by Tilda Swinton. One of her lodgers, Hugh Laurie, is equally batty, convinced he's haunted by the thoughts of the late King George I, only able to exorcise them by writing them on scraps of paper and flying them on a kite – something David's done his whole life too.

He than goes to a boy's school to get an education and falls in with the pretty daughter of an accountant, who has a snivelling offsider (Ben Wishaw) determined to divest the Aunt's family of their fortune in his favour, sending David to the poorhouse all over again.

It bounced all over the place with only the merest of connections between people and happenings, David the straight man in the midst of one chaotic new life chapter after another, and however aware I am that the fault lies with my ignorance about the source rather than anything lacking in the filmmaking itself, I found that nobody gave me enough of a reason to care why there were there.

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