I’ll come clean. Although I have some idea what it’s like inside a book by Charles Dickens, I’ve never actually read one. I started a few in my teens, but there wasn’t anything about their openings that made me want to read on, and nothing I’ve heard anyone say about Dickens (even Jorge Luis Borges, who loved his work) has made me think they might be worth my time. And although I might find a few grounds for real criticism if I did make the effort, I’m happy to just file Dickens’s books under ‘not my cup of tea’ and keep on trucking. An adaptation is something else, however—the relationship between, say, a comic and the stage play it was based on, or a film and the book it’s based on, is never a straightforward one. I’ve seen a few Dickens adaptations, and I’ve found them mawkish, sentimental and thoroughly tedious, but I was prevailed upon by Spawn to watch The Personal History of David Copperfield on the (strong) grounds that it’s written and directed by Armando Ianucci, and stars more or less everyone.
I left whatever I might or might not think about Dickens (as little as possible) outside the cinema, and I have to say that I enjoyed this film a great deal. It’s a straightforwardly satisfying tale of a young man growing up with various nefarious individuals attempting to take advantage of him, and all eventually getting their comeuppance. Along the way a parade of comic and grotesque characters is presented for our entertainment. It is this latter feature which held my attention (in fact, I can barely remember the details of the story by the time of writing). Ianucci persuaded a huge range of well-known actors to take part, all of whom appear to have had a great deal of fun, and his casting was completely colourblind—which is basically the only way to cast historical drama if you’re not willing to permanently exclude actors of colour.
I’ve seen quite a few attempts to shoehorn black or Asian characters into historical contexts where their presence is improbable, and the effect is often strained for me, depending on the general approach to fidelity of the work in question. To ignore the question of the performers’ racial appearance in casting seems to me to effectively circumvent the question: The Personal History of David Copperfield is a film set in nineteenth-century England, and so its cast should be selected from actors able to speak idiomatic British English. If anyone’s hung up on the fact that Rosalind Eleazar’s Agnes Wickfield has black skin, and her father, Benedict Wong’s Mr. Wickfield looks Chinese, well that’s definitively racist, innit? To have denied these excellent actors the opportunity to give these wonderful performances would have been a real shame—although that approach is certainly still the norm in contemporary cinema.
Despite revolving around a central eponymous protagonist, this is very much an ensemble piece, in which many of the actors get to overplay their characters’ idiosyncrasies, in ways which might look like grandstanding in other contexts. My enjoyment of the film largely derived from these daft, over-the-top performances, particularly Wong’s Mr. Wickfield, Hugh Laurie’s Mr. Dick, and Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow. However, this seemingly over-complex assemblage of set-pieces and caricatures does come together, as though by chance, to produce a coherent and easily grasped narrative—one very much less complex than Dickens’s original, I would guess. Although the film clearly embodies the great affection in which Ianucci and others hold the novel, that was no kind of brake on my capacity to enjoy it. I’ve not read the book, I’m not going to read the book, and watching the film didn’t make me any more likely to read the book. But I had a whale of a time with the cast.