FlixChatter Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)


I had been wanting to see this since this film came out last Fall in the UK. Its US release was supposed to be in May this year, but of course it was delayed due to Covid-19. Well, it was well worth the wait! Confession: I’m actually not that familiar with this Charles Dickens’ classic (the only two I’m familiar with are A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations), and I really wish I were. Dicken’s eighth novel is apparently considered to be his masterpiece… in his own words, he described it as “a very complicated weaving of truth and invention” and some elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’s own life.

One thing you notice right away, even from its marketing, is the color-blind casting, which I will get to that later. It takes a certain skill to create a fresh take on a classic, especially one that’s been adapted many times. Director Armando Iannucci certainly has it. The Scottish-born of Italian descent filmmaker is creator of In The Loop and Veep series, and his previous feature was the rather bizarre The Death of Stalin. Most of his work are political satire, but this time he tackled a literary classic with his longtime collaborator Simon Blackwell who penned the script.

Set in the 1840s, it began with young David (Jairaj Varsani) growing up with his mother (Morfydd Clark). Life was relatively happy with his mom and kind housekeeper miss Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), until she remarried an abusive man and young David ends up being sent to a boarding school and later put to work with other poor kids at a wine factory in London that partly owned by his stepfather. I have to admit I find it a bit amusing at first seeing Varjani, then later Dev Patel as David Copperfield, but after a while I truly see Patel embody the character with his certain playfulness and charisma.

Following his mother’s passing, David ran away from the factory and upon the advise of his debt-ridden landlord Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), went to Dover to find his only remaining relative, great aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with her equally eccentric relative, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). His circumstances seem to be improving as aunt Betsey treats him well, despite insisting on calling him “Trotwood Copperfield” or “Trot”, and Mr. Dick is grateful to him for helping him of being consumed by Charles I, the British monarch who lost his head (literally) in mid 1600. The scene of them playing a kite to help clear Mr. Dick’s head is quite a jolly affair.

His aunt sent David to another school and during that time, and his next adventure puts him in contact with a set of new people in his life. It’s rather hard at times to keep everyone straight since I’m not familiar with the story. There is James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), an older schoolboy who befriends David, Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), a lawyer who loves to drink, and his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), and Wickfield’s clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).

Just like in real life, certain people that comes in David’s life don’t always have the best intentions, and David finds out the hard way. Steerforth is an antagonist of sort–someone David regarded as noble, despite his snobbish, condescending nature. But Heep is definitely the villain of the story, all creepy and even downright spooky at times when he practically forces David to join him for tea. As I haven’t seen other adaptations of David Copperfield, I don’t have anything to compare this too, but the pacing is quite dynamic which makes up for the sometimes chaotic, discombobulating ups and downs of the characters.

Patel is definitely the star of the show and he’s the perfect actor to portray the equal comedic and dramatic side of David. There’s such a gleeful adventurous spirit in this film, which I imagine is what is intended by Dickens in his novel. I love how David’s gift as a storyteller and writer is illustrated wonderfully here, full of colorful adventure as well as heartbreaking poignancy. But it doesn’t mean the film makes light of the calamity that David encounters, when his heart breaks upon hearing about his mother’s death and he goes on wreaking havoc at the wine factory, I could feel the pain in his eyes.

Now, in regards to the color casting I mentioned above, I think it paid off wonderfully. Iannucci is quoted on The Independent as saying “It wasn’t a conscious reaction to Brexit, but the conversation has gone very insular in terms of what Britain is and what it doesn’t want to be. I wanted to celebrate what Britain actually is, and it’s much more of a carefree, enjoyable, humorous kind of zesty, energetic place.” In the same article Patel said this about the film’s diverse casting “I totally missed this literary classic growing up. It didn’t appeal to me. And what Armando has done with the casting and the world, he has given it a buoyancy and an accessibility to kids like myself. It really is representative of a modern Britain – the one that I grew up in.” 

Honestly, I don’t know if I’d be as enthused about this film if it weren’t for the color blind casting. Now, I’m not saying now all I want to see is every literary classic being portrayed with the same color blind casting, but it certainly adds a certain level of interest. Now, simply having ethnic actors play traditionally-white characters doesn’t automatically make a film great. It takes a certain directorial vision and also a set of vibrant actors to make it work.

In the end, I forget that ethnic actors are portraying Victorian-era characters written as Caucasians. The vibrant direction, dynamic performances, gorgeous cinematography, costumes, production design and general atmosphere of the film creates an immersive quality.  It all helped me get invested in the characters’ journey throughout. Patel’s charm and versatility (and his gorgeous tousled hair a la the one he’s sporting in LION) is in full display, I’m glad he got the chance to play this role and I hope more filmmakers are inspired by this bold casting decision. I can’t wait to see him tackle yet another classic character that’s typically played by a Caucasian actor… The Green Knight.

Aside from Patel, the rest of the supporting cast are also a joy to watch. Tilda Swinton is always wonderful to watch and her Doctor Strange‘ co-star Benedict Wong is quite hilarious as the alcoholic lawyer. Morfydd Clark has the good fortune of playing two characters, David’s mother and love interest, the utterly silly Dora Spenlow with her fluffy puppy. But it’s the tentative but soulful kinship between David and Agnes is what I find most emotionally resonant, perhaps also because we see David has grown wiser and more mature by this point.

David Copperfield is a complex novel with so much going on, filled with a plethora of themes such as class structure, societal expectations and inequality, etc. but yet feels personal as it’s written from one man’s point of view as he treads on one life adventure to the next. I’m glad I finally get to experience this classic story and definitely garner new appreciation and interest for Dicken’s work.


Have you seen The Personal History of David Copperfield? If so, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Tomorrowland (2015)

TomorrowlandPoster

I hadn’t heard much about this film until I saw the trailer a couple of months ago. Apparently it was based on a section at Disney theme parks, featuring attractions that depict views of the future. The movie opens in the mid 60s with a young boy Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) who made his way to a New York World Fair, feverishly excited to show off his flying jetpack invention that reminds me of something out of Disney’s The Rocketeer. It’s not working properly yet and so a renowned inventor David Nix (Hugh Laurie) rejected it.

TomorrowlandStill1

Despite his failure, Frank’s enthusiasm caught the attention of a mysterious young girl named Athena, and that’s how he ended up in this amazing futuristic city that seem to exist in a parallel dimension. I was caught up in that sense of wonder as the buildup promises something that would totally blow me away. The movie seems to have a lot going for it – an intriguing sci-fi mystery concept, a talented director and big name star. It also boasts some spectacular and imaginative visuals, which is to be expected from a budget of nearly $200 mil. Alas, I kept waiting to be completely in awe of the movie right up until the end, but that moment never came.

The only times where the movie REALLY tickle my curiosity is in that first 10 minutes with the young Frank when he first saw the futuristic city. There’s also the first few minutes after a young teen named Casey (Britt Robertson) found the mystifying pin that upon touching it transports her into the spectacular universe filled with futuristic skyscrapers, connected by a sleek-looking monorail. According to this article, ILM spent 2.5 years to produce over a thousand effects shots, employing 200 employees to create that futuristic world. Was the result something that would knock your socks off? Visually, yes. But if only Disney would invest in a script that is equally awe-inspiring.

TomorrowlandStill2

Even though the movie has a lot to say about invention and creativity, the script from Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird is largely uninspiring. It’s really a huge letdown as the build-up was so promising and I was really hoping to be wowed by it all. The uneven tone throughout the movie proved to be rather distracting and the movie never quite find its footing. Midway through the movie, when Casey entered an antique shop looking for answers about the pin, the film descend into a slapstick farce. The casting of comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn just seem out of place here, but then so is country artist Tim McGraw. By that point though, I was still keen on figuring out just what the heck is going on, and so I went along for the ride.

But the more the plot is unraveled, the more underwhelming the movie becomes. The finale is formulaic, even borderline absurd, and worst of all, preachy. I appreciate the message of optimism and the attempt to inspire youth’s imagination, but I really could do without the preachy-ness of taking better care of our world, etc. Suddenly I was given an environmental lecture from a rather lame villain who barely has any character development in the movie. I really don’t know what to make of Laurie‘s character but one thing for sure, the talented actor was wasted in this role.

TomorrowlandStill3TomorrowlandStill5

George Clooney adds star power in the role of the older Frank, though he spends most of the movie being curmudgeon rather than his charming self. I was more impressed by the young actors, especially Robertson who infused the role with her buoyancy and genuine optimism. English actress Raffey Cassidy is absolutely adorable as Athena who’s perhaps the heart of the movie. Together with Robertson, the two young actresses also provide some unexpected comic relief. There are fun moments scattered throughout, like the scene involving the Eiffel Tower, but overall the movie just feels haphazard and irritatingly heavy-handed. It’s disappointing given the talents involved, especially Brad Bird who’s a creative visionary behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. I suppose I should’ve been worried when I saw Lindelof’s name attached to the script, given what he did with Prometheus, among other things.

TomorrowlandStill4

Similar to another big-budget sci-fi Elysium, this movie feels like a poorly-executed ambitious concept. I wouldn’t say Tomorrowland is a terrible film or that it’s completely without merit. I think kids might still enjoy it and there are plenty of cool, shiny things to wow them. But for me, all the visual gadgetry and bombastic action involving giant robots and weird cyborgs ring hollow. At 130 minutes, there are numerous fillers that feel pointless by the end of it. It’s like an exhilarating ride that was fun for a while, then runs out juice halfway through but yet kept going on for far too long.

2halfReels


Have you seen Tomorrowland? Well what do YOU think?