Now Iannucci and his regular collaborator, Simon Blackwell, have broadened their range to take in Victorian literature, streamlining Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to suit contemporary tastes while managing to keep its themes intact. These are timeless, after all. It’s a story about status anxiety – what could be more topical?
The film’s casting certainly is. I doubt that Iannucci set out to appease those who have been justly complaining that ethnic minorities are under-represented in the cinema. I can’t believe that he ever set out to appease anybody about anything. But he’s been refreshingly colour-blind in selecting his actors. As well as casting British-based Indian actor Dev Patel as David, he’s chosen Rosaline Eleazar – whose father is Ghanaian – to be David’s friend Agnes Wickfield, while her father is played by Benedict Wong, whose heritage is Hong Kong Chinese. Welshman Aneurin Barnard is David’s schoolfriend James, and Nigerian-born Nikki Amuka Bird is his mother.
The opening scene has David on a stage in the middle of the kind of one-man show for which Dickens himself was renowned. He is making theatre out of his own life story which unfolds in flashback, beginning with his idyllic early childhood in the Suffolk countryside with his mother and their housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). He then plunges into the string of misfortunes brought about by his mother’s disastrous marriage to the sadistic Edward Murdstone – played by Darren Boyd – with the equally statuesque Gwendoline Christie as his vile sister, Jane. Like outsize praying mantises, these two form a pincer movement. Against them, little David and his diminutive mother don’t stand a chance.
The script extracts the essence of Dickens’ style from the narrative while editing out the melodrama. If pushed, Iannucci and Blackwell prefer to be cryptic rather than risk any hint of the tendentious. And it’s a message well absorbed by the whole cast. Tilda Swinton’s Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick and Peter Capaldi’s Micawber are eccentrics well steeped in their own anxieties yet they invest their delivery with a breezy matter-of-factness. Life could never surprise them: having experienced a large helping of its horrors, they always expect the worst.
The film also makes the most of Copperfield’s ambitions as a writer. His love of word play weaves into the action as he makes notes on everybody he meets, lighting on speech patterns and favourite catchphrases to shape his commentary on the characters who will eventually end up in his books.
Although the novel has long been a television favourite, it’s rarely been produced for the big screen. You have to look back to 1935 and George Cukor’s film for MGM with Freddie Bartholomew as the young David and W.C. Fields as Micawber. It still looks great and Cukor’s touch shows up in its comic flair but with this one, Iannucci and his team have pumped up the energy levels and brought their usual audacity to bear in a thoroughly modern interpretation.
At cinemas from July 2