A Victorian stage. A man comes up to tell a story. It’s only that Dev Patel off of Skins and Slumdog Millionaire. Patel is presumably at this moment playing Charles Dickens playing David Copperfield. And as Patel/Dickens/Copperfield starts speaking, we enter a baby’s eye’s perspective of a birth. Expect more Tristram Shandy-like hints that the story we about to observe may not literally be true.
In two hours we are told the rise and fall and rise again story of David Copperfield, although different people choose to assign him other names. We experience exploitation in a bottle factory, sanctuary at a donkey-hating villa and a boat-house on the Yarmouth beach. Each of the many locations is full of a horde of new characters. Boy, are there a lot of characters to keep up with.
For those of us who read or watch Dickens only occasionally, its amazing how many of the characters’ names have become Dickensian archetypes – the eternally optimistic Mr Micawber, the slithy Uriah Heep, the mad as a box of frogs Betsey Trotwood. IMDB.com lists 44 main acting roles, and even though one of these is Jip the Dog, that’s still a lot of plates to keep spinning.
This film courts many dangers. First, there’s the whole costume drama thing – look I know it all looks sumptuous, but sometimes you think that more time has been spent in setting up the costumes and scenery than is strictly necessary. In other films (hello Messrs. Merchant and Ivory), you’d be excused for thinking that the excessive period detail is there to hide a weak script.
And then there’s another problem, which is possible felt by me and me alone. It’s to do with Dickens, or more specifically, with adaptations of Dickens. There are just so many eccentric characters with deliberately bizarre names that you (that is, I) wonder whether this isn’t just all pantomime, whether there’s any substance between all the show.
When your lead actors include Huge Laurie, Peter Capaldi and Tilda Swinton, all of whom have been known to overact at will, there’s always the possibility that this is going to end up as a series of great individual performances, which somehow fail to cohere into a satisfying whole. So its refreshing to see that all the actors show some restraint. While their characters are not exactly subdued, no scenery is excessively overchewed.
Towards the middle of the film, I also worried that it might start drifting, especially when some of the main characters went missing for large periods of time. It felt like everything could disperse into a thousand equally insignificant endings. And yet the final half hour masterfully brought everything – and everyone – back together, in a manner only surpassed by Henry Fielding’s (or Tony Richardson’s depending on your choice of medium) Tom Jones.
I guess you can’t address this film without mentioning the colour blind casting which has the dark shinned Patel cast as David, and Benedict Wong as the father of Rosalind Eleazar. There are different answers depending on which petty objection is raised.
To those saying “but there weren’t black and Asian people in Victorian England”, just go home, read through Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, and come back when you’re mentally equipped to deal with the issue. To those who claim the Dickens’s David is white, where do you get your information? But more importantly, are you now going to demand that all Macbeths speak with a Scottish accent and Hamlets must be Danish?
While these answers may be suitably snarky, they sidestep the main point. There is a serious lack of roles on offer to Black and Asian actors, and a little positive discrimination may play a tiny role towards tipping this balance. So we shouldn’t just be defending Armando Iannucci’s casting decisions, we should be demanding that more directors choose actors based on their talent not the colour of their skin.
Back to the film. I think I need to see it again to be sure that it’s as good as it felt when the closing credits rolled. As said, parts of the middle felt that they were dragging at the time, and should be viewed again in the light of how they build up to the ending. But even then, whenever things felt like they were getting a bit too solemn, there was a lovely bit of slapstick to cheer us up.
And we just don’t have enough films which are both well-structured and funny.