Class rather than race is a key issue in the work of Dickens; upward mobility in society, or the lack of it, infuses the narratives of the celebrated author’s work from Great Expectations to Little Dorrit. So the decision-making behind this version of David Copperfield is the big story here; Armando Iannucci’s film has something new to offer, and the term in play is ‘colour-blind casting’ a la Hamilton. It’s a common-term in theatre, but less so in films, where casting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha led to a public apology, or Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese women in Ghost in the Shell caused heaps of negative press. Any actor should be able to play any role, was Johansson’s argument, largely shouted down. So if nothing else, Iannucci should be applauded for making issues of race centre stage here; the problem is, his well-meaning film lacks any real character of its own.
Dev Patel is a fairly pallid Copperfield, pin-balling around a freshly-industrialised England; the sight of Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) pressing her upturned nose up against glass in the opening scenes sets the tone for leering grotesquery. The boy Copperfield becomes a man, and gets an education of sorts from lovable reprobate Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), some family warmth from Mr Peggoty (Paul Whitehouse) and gets wronged by Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw). As always with Dickens on film, incident and narrative pile up due to the difficulty of selecting the key points of the narrative; Copperfield’s friendship with the eccentric Mr Pip (Hugh Laurie) is arguably the most endearing element “Form a Q’ says Dick as he invites the young man to aid him in some typography; there’s plenty of clever word-play here, although the casually-defined caricatures lack the depth that an expansive tv series can bring.
A prestige British production, The Personal History of David Copperfield has struggled to make an impact; the one and only significant award nomination is in a newly created ‘casting’ category in the British Academy awards. Currently reeling from yet another white-washing controversy, BAFTA’s recognition feels problematic, given the regular, public failure of voting members to recognise anyone outside to a white glitterati, and the institution’s continued enthusiasm to weed out as many voting members as possible outside of London. In the context of this story, the refusal of the film-makers to recognise race feels like a wrong-turn; social mobility was, and is, an issue for anyone outside of the power-elite, but there’s nowhere in this film to address that.
In the end, The Personal History of David Copperfield idealistically wants to eradicate ideas of race, and suggest that we are all indistinguishable from each other. For those who have suffered in terms of their race, creed or colour over the last few hundred years, it seeks to cancel out their pain and invites the victims to let go of their grievances. But most of these grievances have yet to be heard, and British cinema’s denying, for example, The Windrush generation their voice in favour of an umpteenth retelling of Dickens’ classic story is the problem, not the solution.