Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 29, 2020 5:30 pm 
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A somewhat radical and offbeat 'David Copperfield' that's also fresh and charming

The most famous and popular British author of the Victorian era, still one of the most admired, most enjoyed authors in English is Charles Dickens. His most famous and his own personal favorite novel is David Copperfield, and it's autobiographical. Strangely, it seems it hasn't been made into movies all that often, not counting things done for TV or in series (of which there have been many, of course). The last one purely for the big screen was Delbert Mann's, in 1970. But wait! That, like the Hallmark one in 2000, directed by Peter Medak, was for TV too. Delbert Mann's had, though, remarkable actors, including Ralph Richardson as Mr. Macawber, Wendy Hiller as Mrs. M., and a cast including Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Sinéad Cusack. We have to go back to 1935, George Cukor's with W.C. Fields (which also had Lionel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester Basil Rathbone, and Maureen O'Sullivan), to escape the dominance of television. And this book is so important, Iannucci's doing the first big version in quite a long time, not for television, seems pretty important to me. And it's got some some familiar faces, especially Iannucci's collaborator Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton as the confused, distant Betsy Trotwood, and Ben Whishaw in a shiny bowl cut with penetrating eyes boring into your memory with the film's most troubling and complex characterization as the devious, creepy Uriah Heep. But what counts here is how Iannucci keeps it all like a flowing dance, extracting every bit of humor from it and giving it " a real buoyancy and some real color," as its new stars has said, never getting hung up too long on any one person or puzzle, true to the warm, hopeful sprit of his protagonist.

Iannucci's Dickins must not and does not utterly escape the "Dickensian" world of rapacious creditors, sudden rags to riches to rags transformations, brutal child labor, unchecked alcoholism and thwarted romances. But it's less overwhelming than usual with character and incident, and it has a lighter touch and a freer hand, changing and abridging the plot without a qualm. Iannucci is inspired by his source. Hehas said, "David Copperfield is a work filled with surreal visions, thrilling metaphors and deft one-liners," and he finds magic realism and comedy without losing the Victorian setting.

It's also color (colour) blind, starting with the Indian-descent Dev Patel as the adult David Copperfield, with several charming younger Patel-lookalikes to play Copperfield as a child, Ranveer Jaiswal, and then Jairaj Varsani. Patel is a versatile chap. Hel's played a silly, sexed-up teenager (in "Skins"), a "Slumdog Millionaire," math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, a lost child who finds his mother in India via Google Earth decades later, a computer nerd on Aaron Sorkin's "Newsroom," an eccentric Indian hotel manager for the "Marigold" series and a hotel staff member facing a terrorist scourge in Hotel Mombai.

Dev Patel makes a warm, appealing lead in a movie that underlines how England isn't all white and never was. He is, in fact, English born and bred: whenever you've heard him speaking Indian accented English in a movie, it was acquired for the job. Here, he learns to talk Cockney - that is, David does - when Copperfield is forced into low circumstances in London. The adult David, that is Dev, is sometimes standing by on the scene when things happen to his younger self, and always he is collecting phrases to write down his experiences in his fiction later on. The sense of this is so strong the last sight we see in the film is Dev, that is, David, sitting at a facsimile of that famous chair at the famous desk, to write. Throughout, this version strikes a fresh balance between the appropriate and accurate and the slightly offbeat. Is it ;profound? Maybe not. But how often, really, is Dickens a profound writer? He is a warm, lively, emotionally engaging one. And that's the way this movie feels. Don't expect the world and you'll have a good time.

The Personal History of David Copperfield, 119 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2019 and showed at 8 or 10 other mostly British festivals. Aug. 2020 US release, and now on multiple online platforms. Metascore: 77%.

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