I tried, but I just couldn’t get through Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. Maybe it was the wrong film on the wrong night, me being in the wrong mood. Its almost funny, that I have added the option of the ‘abort button’ to my film-watching (I’m so stubborn I essentially watch the entirety of any film I watch, as bitter an experience that may prove to be) but having not pushed the abort button in all this time, along come two all at once (more on the second ‘abort’ a little later).
My problem is writing this post. I thought it would be easy: terrible silly film, couldn’t get into it, not for me, that sort of thing. In fact I wrote this post and stopped, deleted it. I was suddenly having a conversation about casting colour-blindness and sexual and racial politics and really didn’t feel comfortable about it. I believe I am not prejudiced or sexist but criticising this film made it look like I was, and me mindful that this film was somehow criticism-proof by way of just being what it was, like The Last Jedi. That’s possibly a bad example- The Personal History of David Copperfield is a far better film than The Last Jedi is. Damning it with faint praise, right there, but hey-ho.
To be clear: I didn’t mind Dev Patel being cast as the title character- he was very, very good in the part, warm and engaging and actually the reason why I stuck with the film as long as I did (finally walking away from it at the mid-way point, around the hour mark). The only thing I regret about walking away from the film is not seeing what he did for the rest of the film, where his performance took it. I don’t care about Scarlet Johansson being cast as the Major in the 2017 Ghost in the Shell movie, and wouldn’t particularly shudder at a woman playing a future Ben Hur (Disney’s Barbie Hur anyone?) if it somehow made a good movie. I did get increasingly irritated that the film reinforced that colour-blindness as it progressed, what I assume was attempt to bring Modern Britain to Charles Dickens, which is fine I think, and quite admirable, if you bring Charles Dickens to Modern Britain (i.e. set the story in the modern-day) but I don’t think you can get away with it to the extent that they did while still setting it in 1840s England. It just felt too much like revisionism, a rewriting of history and how things really were, instead transplanting modern-day atitudes, enlightened as they may be, on a period which was rather less enlightened. Perhaps it might have felt better had it gone the way of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo and Juliet, in how that film ‘modernised’ Shakespeare (or made more relevant?) for modern audiences, maybe gone with a rock score too for that matter.
The main thing that bothered me was the crazily frenetic, dizzying pace of the whole thing, evidently partly due to trying to condense what is, I think, something around 700 pages long down to a two-hour movie (this kind of material is ideally better suited to a television series, I think- its not as if you could really condense The Lord of the Rings into a two-hour movie, or something like Dune either). It seemed to be reducing all the characters down to essentially cameos and therefore the storyline proved very hard to really get into. I really didn’t even get the sense of humour (its advertised as being a very funny movie, and me not ‘getting’ that comedy made the experience like fingers scratching down a chalkboard).
Its relentlessly fast and over-condensed, maybe the film should have been called The Readers Digest Edition of David Copperfield. Lack of attention-span in modern audiences is nothing new, its been increasingly prevalent for many years as the pacing of films has gotten quicker and quicker in general. I personally feel much more comfortable with the gentle -glacial, some may rate it- pace of Blade Runner 2049 or Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. I enjoy character beats in film, lingering shots, moments for reflection.
So anyway, clearly this really wasn’t a film for me, or maybe if I return to it another night in a different mood I might be more agreeable towards it. As it is, I pressed that abort button and have ended up devoting far too long writing a post about a film which won’t even count towards my total for 2020. Go figure.