One wonders what Charles Dickens would have made of Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield? Despite his reputation as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, the famous novelist shared all the popular racial prejudices of his time. No-one disputes that the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist, is a notorious anti-Semitic caricature, but Dickens was just as dismissive of blacks, whom he referred to as “primitives” or “savages”, and highly suspicious of the Chinese. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857 he thought it would be justified to “exterminate the Race” that perpetrated such an insult on English might and dignity.
Perhaps in order to save Dickens from himself Iannucci has given us a thoroughly colourblind David Copperfield, in which the lead role is played by Anglo-Indian, Dev Patel. This is strange enough, but it’s even weirder to find the snobbish Mrs. Steerforth played by Nigerian actress, Nikki Amuka-Bird, the bibulous Mr. Wickfield played by Benedict Wong, and – by some miracle of birth – his daughter, Agnes, played by another black actress, Rosalind Eleazar.
As if this wasn’t sufficient, most of David’s schoolmates seem to be of African or Asian descent. Iannucci has said he wanted to reflect the cultural diversity of Victorian England, but much of this casting is pure fantasy. He’s on firmer ground when speaking about Britain today, which is one of most racially diverse nations on earth.
This is a David Copperfield for our times, in which the director has made use of the available talent while ignoring the (potentially offensive) question of racial appropriateness. The only problem is that his choices are so jarring the casting feels like an exercise in affirmative action.
Nowadays we look back with horror on those movies in which white actors used blackface to play African-American roles or had their eyes made-up to appear Chinese. Neither was this imposture limited to Hollywood. As late as 1967 Ed Devereaux got blacked up to play an Aboriginal tracker in Journey Out of Darkness.
To contemporary sensibilities it seems a grotesque distortion not to have an Aboriginal actor play an Aboriginal role, or a Chinese actor play a Chinese role. Yet when it comes to restaging Shakespeare or Dickens it’s increasingly common for major parts to be assigned to actors who would have been historically inconceivable in such settings. This may help impressionable viewers to become more inclusive in their attitudes, but it also presents a distorted view of a particular era. It actually makes it more difficult to understand the racial attitudes that drove imperialism and colonialism if we believe the powerbrokers behind such movements were anything other than white.
When filmmakers wish to express their distaste for racism, or fear to be labelled ethnocentric if they don’t have a racially diverse cast, history is willfully fictionalised. This is the stumbling block one has to overcome to fully enjoy Iannucci’s David Copperfield.
The director’s advantage is that he is a much-admired figure, known for his TV political satires such as The Thick of It and Veep, and the hit black comedy, The Death of Stalin(2017). There have been several TV serialisations of David Copperfield, but the only notable adaptation for the big screen, up to this point, has been George Cukor’s film of 1935. This may be because the story is too big and unwieldy to slim down to a comfortable 100 minutes. To make the attempt requires a good deal of trimming and compression, which means the story has a tendency to jump from one episode to the next.
This slightly fractured continuity is a feature of the new David Copperfield, but Iannucci compensates by moving us along so speedily we never have time to think about what we’re missing. The film also has a bright, sumptuous appearance, quite unlike the gothic atmosphere of David Lean’s black-and-white adaptations of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.
Dickens’s own eloquence often got the better of him, making him embellish his creations at great length or indulge in gross sentimentality. Any adaptation has to decide how much of this can be omitted without spoiling the story or impairing its unique ‘Dickensian’ flavour. Iannucci and his co-scriptwriter, Simon Blackwell, don’t dwell too long on the villainous nature of David’s stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, or the salt-of-the-earth character of Peggotty’s family in Yarmouth. They squeeze David’s schooldays into a small frame. We see his courtship of the good-natured, empty-headed Dora (Morfydd Clark), but the actual marriage is omitted.
David Copperfield contains some of Dickens’s greatest comic inventions, notably the impecunious Mr. Micawber (Peter Castaldi), imperious Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and the eccentric Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep, is positively ghoulish, while Rosalind Eleazar makes Agnes much less cloying than she is the novel, where David refers to her as his “good angel”.
Mr. Micawber, in particular, was close to Dickens’s heart, being modelled on his own father, John Dickens – a man with the gift of the gab but no talent for making a living.
G.K. Chesterton, who was rarely lost for words, was an unconditional admirer. He wrote: “Micawber is not a man; Micawber is the superman. we can only walk round and around Micawber wondering what we shall say.” In the Cukor version, the role was played by W.C.Fields – a barnstorming performance that the lean-figured Peter Castaldi makes no attempt to emulate. His rendition is more vulnerable, even slightly tragic, although he still manages to dominate every scene in which he appears.
If one can ignore the pecularities of casting, and tolerate the nips and cuts, there’s a lot to like about this David Copperfield. It brings to life the teeming canvas we find in the novel but removes the egregious sentimentality. Iannucci has set out to emphasise the positive, giving us a newly inclusive version of the story, but most importantly, a Dickens without tears.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Simon Blackwell & Armando Iannucci, after a novel by Charles Dickens
Starring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong
UK/USA rated PG, 119 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 March, 2020