The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

2019 #136
Armando Iannucci | 119 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

The Personal History of David Copperfield

A fresh perspective on Charles Dickens’s favourite of his own novels, from co-writer/director Armando Iannucci, best known for sitcom The Thick of It, its spinoff movie In the Loop, and The Death of Stalin.

Those are all political satires, of course, whereas David Copperfield is more of a shaggy dog story; though its attracted some degree of ‘political’ commentary thanks to its colourblind casting. So let’s get that out of the way first. Not every character here is played by a white actor. Is every character in Dickens’s novel white? I dunno, probably. Is it unrealistic to have people of colour in a story set in Victorian England? Well, considering England was at the heart of a worldwide empire with global trade links and had been through the slave trade, I would guess not everyone in the country was white by that point. I’m no expert on this, but I’ve certainly seen comments by experts that would agree with that.

Now, all of that said, David Copperfield’s attitude to casting is the most genuinely colourblind I’ve ever seen — it’s not concerned that related characters have ‘plausible’ similar skin tones, even. It seems Iannucci has just cast whichever actor he felt was right for the role. I guess that’s going to prove an insurmountable barrier to some people; too great an ask to accept the ‘reality’ of the story. Whereas a giant hand crashing through a ceiling to pluck little David from comfort, well, that’s just dandy. Anyway, I’m already getting bored with this debate and I’ve barely written about it. If it bothers you, I don’t think it should, but hey, you do you. For the rest of us, we can just get on with enjoying everything else the film has to offer.

Dev Patel IS David Copperfield

And that’s quite a bit. Dickens’s novel is a thick tome (768 pages, as per the film tie-in edition), and here it’s been condensed briskly into just under two hours, so there’s a lot more going on than the colour of people’s skin. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale, and Iannucci emphasises that side of it by framing it as David telling his own story at a staged reading. Such a framing device also allows for some flights of whimsy in the film’s treatment of certain things, especially scene transitions, but to say too much of those would destroy some delightful surprises. Trust that Iannucci is doing more than just showing off or messing around, however, instead establishing a style that allows for a neat twist or two later on.

I don’t know how thoroughly the film adapts those 768 pages, but it feels like it’s trying to cram in as much as possible. It rattles by at a whipcrack pace, which is both one of its greatest assets, because it moves like the clappers, and its biggest drawbacks, because it winds up feeling a bit too long. Every time you think it’s getting to the end, there’s another bit. (Maybe this is less of a problem if you’re familiar with the whole story, which I was not.) This is a minor complaint, though, because while those 119 minutes may be a few more than seems strictly necessary, what’s within them is frequently riotously funny. I saw the film with an almost-full house, and it was clear everyone was having a whale of a time.

The same appears to be true of the cast. I suppose Dev Patel is best known for heavier stuff, like Slumdog Millionaire (though that was 12 years ago now (jeez)) and Lion, but here reminds us he’s adept at lighter material too (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen the Marigold Hotel films). Elsewise, the extensive and sublime supporting cast vie for attention in an array of standout performances. For my money the winner (if we must pick one) is Hugh Laurie as the flighty but unfailingly kind Mr Dick. Plus it’s quite nice (or you could say “nostalgic”) to see him back in bumbling toff mode after years of things like House and The Night Manager.

If he's Mr Dick, what's HER name likely to be?

Not that the others don’t get their moments to shine — when you’ve got the likes of Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw involved, you’d expect nothing less. I could go on listing recognisable names, for there are plenty here, but you can always just read the cast list for yourself. One of the most noteworthy is Morfydd Clark in a dual role, one of which likes to mainly talk through her dog. I suspect this may be another stop on her path to stardom — she was recently seen in the BBC’s Dracula and a small-but-memorable role in His Dark Materials, and has been cast as Galadriel in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series.

So there’s a lot of talent on screen, but it takes that degree of skill to negotiate the tone Iannucci has set: a narrative full with comedy, but that doesn’t lose sight of an underlying heart. Indeed, the degree of humour is a welcome counterpoint to the machinations of the plot, which contain an array of miseries when looked at objectively — death, loss of home, betrayal, and so on. This is again perhaps where that framing device comes into play, setting the story as a man finding the (sometimes dark) humour in the list of tragedies that have befallen him, as well as his friends and family. David’s predilection for storytelling is an important throughline, and the film’s affection for the emotional power of the act of writing is sure to make it a favourite for many authors (and wannabes).

4 out of 5

The Personal History of David Copperfield is in UK cinemas now. It’s released in the US on May 8th.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

aka: just Tomorrowland

2015 #187
Brad Bird | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.20:1 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG

TomorrowlandAfter making his live-action directorial debut with the unlikely sidestep of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Pixar alumni Brad Bird heads back in a familiar family-friendly direction for this Disney sci-fi action-adventure. One of several movies lambasted by critics this past summer, I actually thought it was a lot of fun.

The story concerns a future city created by scientists and dreamers; a place of wonder and innovation not constrained by the short-term goals of politicians or moneymen. Boy inventor Frank is delighted to be invited along there by recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy); years later, teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) receives similar treatment… only it turns out something is wrong, and Casey and Athena must track down a grizzled and disillusioned Frank (George Clooney) so they can head back to Tomorrowland and convince its leader (Hugh Laurie) of the way to make things right.

Something along those lines, anyway, because Tomorrowland’s storytelling can get a little muddled. It doesn’t quite conform to your usual action-adventure narrative shape — we spend quite a long time with boy-Frank, before the story essentially restarts with Casey, and eventually those two threads join up. The thing this makes me wonder is, is the storytelling actually muddled (this is not an uncommon criticism of the film), or does it just take an atypical shape, with the consequent lack of comforting familiarity making us think it’s poorly done? A counterargument might be that it helps foster some of the film’s mysteries, which might be reveals without setup if you restructured. I think if you just go along with it, the only real bump is in that restart; otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth action-adventure.

And that’s why I don’t really understand the negative response to it. Sure, the plot may have the odd hole, but there are worse in better-regarded movies; Raffey Cassidy, a findand there’s a moral lesson that’s arguably a little heavy-handed, but as it’s a moral lesson some people aren’t bloody listening to, I can’t say I blame Bird for that. The characters and performances are likeable, with Raffey Cassidy standing out as a marvellous young find, though Laurie is a little undersold. There are some suitably entertaining action scenes, some moments of visual splendour thanks to the future city, and one long take that is exquisite. I know I’m a sucker for a long take, but this is a really exceptional one, that deserves to be mentioned alongside the year’s more-praised unbroken shot, the opening of Spectre.

It’s such a shame when original blockbusters like this get pissed all over by critics and an audience who are sometimes too keen to re-parrot critics’ opinions as if they’re their own (see also the Stateside response to Lone Ranger vs. how the rest of us received it). I’m not arguing movies should get a free pass just because they’re not adapted from something else, but really, when decent adventures like this get slated and consequently flop, what incentive do the studios have to try something new, when they know producing fifth Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean instalments will make shedloads whatever the reviews say?

For anyone who enjoys a good sci-fi action-adventure movie, I urge you to ignore the critics and give Tomorrowland a go. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s a fun time with more than a few points to commend it.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^

The BAFTAs 2008

British film’s big night has been and gone. I won’t offer a comprehensive list of winners, or even many thoughts on them — such things are easily found elsewhere — but I will instead offer my thoughts on one of the few ceremonies this year to be presented in full (well, relatively speaking), and the only film awards ceremony that receives a terrestrial television airing in the UK.

The first thought that comes to mind is, “oh dear”. Anyone would think the writers’ strike was affecting the UK too, if this was the evidence they had to go on. Jonathan Ross’s jokes were few and far between, and rarely gained much reaction from his audience. To be fair to Ross, Stephen Fry had a good deal of excellent material when he used to host the BAFTAs and he was often met with silence too… but not as often, and it tended to be the silence of “that went over the heads of the yanks in the audience” rather than of “it wasn’t that funny…”

I like Ross as a presenter, generally speaking — I enjoy his Friday night show, and while I rarely catch his radio show (I’m rather lax about listening to anything on the radio) I enjoy that even more; and I liked Film 2000-whatever, because I often find I agree with his views and have some broadly similar tastes. But he’s no BAFTA host. He’s just not funny enough… oddly, because his work at the Comedy Awards is usually hilariously good.

The opening, with a troop of 300-style Spartans, was by far the most interesting bit. It all seemed quite incongruous for an awards show, but through this it suggested a show with some flair and excitement. Sadly it just remained incongruous, with nothing else even vaguely close amongst the endless troop of fairly famous people reading poorly from an autocue. Even that Spartan-packed opening was flawed, missing out on the apparently obvious joke of having someone enter and yell, “THIS. IS. BAFTA!”, which would’ve been a far stronger opening than… whatever Jonathan Ross said. I can’t remember now…

It’s a shame we couldn’t make a better fist of it for a year when more eyes than ever were on the BAFTAs, thanks to the faltering performance of US awards shows under the strike. A new host would help. Eddie Izzard, maybe — he got laughs. So did Ricky Gervais, not that he’d do it. But when even Hugh Laurie can’t bridge the cultural divide of British and American humour, you have to wonder if the host is doomed to failure from the start. At least the awards themselves threw up some surprises, with enough nods to the American films (and a consequent shunning of British talent) to keep them interested — I do wonder if the BAFTAs pander to trying to gain an American audience too much, but one could probably debate that for hours.

There’s one thing we do better though: fewer awards, and we don’t even screen them all. It makes for a much less tiring experience.