My movies 2020 – David Copperfield: likable adaptation of Dickens’ evergreen

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[English text (653 words) with audio +  translation in Italian  + video review in Italian / / Traduzione italiana dopo il testo originale e videorecensione]

 

click below to listen to the reading of the text

After my tumultuous return to the movies with the fast-paced action thriller Tenet, my second screening took me back to the more traditional Victorian Age. The Personal History of David Copperfield by Armando Iannucci is the third screen rendition of Charles Dickens’ classic. The novelist strongly criticized the XIX century moralistic bourgeoise society, the same one Dickens actually represented and basically approved: as George Orwell said, “The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail.” Dickens’ outstanding weapons for his social criticism, especially focused on child exploitation, were language and humour, two main features of his that are at the centre of this film too.

David Copperfield is the only novel, largely autobiographical, chronologically narrated in first person by the protagonist who has become a successful writer. The film maintains this feature, even if its narrative technique is modernistic: it begins with Copperfield as an established author who tells the story of his life in a theatre; the film is a long flashback in which we also see Copperfield writing his story, going back and forth in time, rewriting parts of the plot, entering the screen to watch himself as a child and so on. Notwithstanding this modern approach, the movie catches Dickens’ spirit: the gloom of the poor underworld, the factory’s hard life, the prison, the vanity and hypocrisy of the middle-classes, the humour and sarcasm of the narrator, the good and bad flat characters and the setting are pure Dickens. David is the protagonist, and the catalyst of this variegated Victorian world, who goes from rags to riches back and forth several times before the inevitable happy ending. It may not be faithful in the plot (but the novel itself has a messy one), but it certainly pays homage to Dickens’ style and language, his plays with words, his one-liners, his bitter sentences. The importance of this feature is also visually underlined by sheets of paper in which David writes his notes. Ian article about the novel in The Guardian, Iannucci writes about his “rereading the book and being astonished by the unexpected modernity of the narrative and the sheer boisterous energy of the language… Most adaptations tend to concentrate on the story and not on poetic imagery, but in this book, language is all”.

Dev Patel is the open-faced, open-hearted young hero Copperfield. Next to him, all the immortal characters of the novel are there: his nursemaid Peggotty, his delicate widowed mother, the abusive Mr Murdstone and his grisly sister Jane, the formidable aunt Betsey Trotwood (a star turn from Tilda Swinton), the genial lunatic Mr Dick who is Dickens’ homage to the force of imagination, the inexhaustibly optimistic Mr Micawber and his devoted wife – always one step ahead of the debt collectors. And of course the main villain, the creepily parasitic Uriah Heep, in Iannucci’s words “the negative image of David himself, a warning to our hero, and to us, of what David might have become… [since] he and Uriah live with early misfortune … David and Uriah are a fork in the road.” Anyway, the most astonishing feature is the choice of coloured actors, from Patel himself to many other non-white characters in the super-white world of the novel. Postmodernism again, of course, which leaves way to interpretations.

I do share the evaluation of The Guardian‘s critic P. Bradshaw in his The Personal History of David Copperfield review – Iannucci relishes the absurdity: “Iannucci’s terrifically likable, genial adaptation of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield taps into the author’s humanity and optimism, if perhaps at the expense of the novel’s darker side.” So no wonder it was the Observer‘s  Film of the Week too.

In this covid scary age, let’s conclude with the line optimistic Mr Micawber keeps saying as he is haunted by creditors: “Something will turn up”. For not being able to go to the movies again would be another pain (in which part of the body it’s up to you to choose).

Traduzione in italiano

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[Fare riferimento alla versione inglese per i link nel testo]

Dopo il mio tumultuoso ritorno al cinema con il frenetico thriller d’azione Tenet, la mia seconda visione mi ha riportato alla più tradizionale epoca vittoriana. The Personal History of David Copperfield di Armando Iannucci è la terza versione cinematografica del classico di Charles Dickens. Il romanziere criticava fortemente la società borghese e moralista del XIX secolo, la stessa che Dickens rappresentava e fondamentalmente approvava: come diceva George Orwell, “Il lupo è alla porta, ma scodinzola”. Le armi di Dickens per la sua critica sociale, focalizzata in particolare sullo sfruttamento dei minori, sono state il linguaggio e l’umorismo, due delle sue caratteristiche principali che sono anche al centro di questo film.

David Copperfield è l’unico romanzo, in gran parte autobiografico, narrato cronologicamente in prima persona dal protagonista, che è diventato uno scrittore di successo. Il film mantiene questa caratteristica, anche se la sua tecnica narrativa è modernista: inizia con Copperfield come autore affermato che racconta la storia della sua vita in un teatro; il film è un lungo flashback in cui vediamo anche Copperfield scrivere la sua storia, andare avanti e indietro nel tempo, riscrivere parti della trama, entrare nello schermo per guardarsi da bambino e così via. Nonostante questo approccio moderno, il film cattura lo spirito di Dickens: lo squallore del sottobosco proletario, la dura vita della fabbrica, la prigione, la vanità e l’ipocrisia della borghesia, l’umorismo e il sarcasmo del narratore, i personaggi ‘piatti’ buoni e cattivi e l’ambientazione sono puro Dickens. David è il protagonista e il catalizzatore di questo variegato mondo vittoriano e si trova a far parte delle diverse classi sociali prima dell’inevitabile lieto fine. Può anche non essere fedele alla trama (ma il romanzo stesso ne ha una disordinata), ma il film certamente rende omaggio allo stile e al linguaggio di Dickens, ai suoi giochi di parole, alle sue battute, alle sue frasi amare. L’importanza di questa caratteristica è sottolineata anche visivamente dai fogli di carta in cui David scrive i suoi appunti. In un articolo sul romanzo scritto per The Guardian, Iannucci parla della sua “rilettura del libro e del suo stupore per l’inaspettata modernità della narrazione e la pura e turbolenta energia del linguaggio … La maggior parte degli adattamenti tende a concentrarsi sulla storia e non sull’ immaginario poetico, ma in questo libro la lingua è tutto “.

Dev Patel è il giovane eroe Copperfield, dal viso e dal cuore aperto. Accanto a lui ci sono tutti i personaggi immortali del romanzo: la sua bambinaia Peggotty, la sua delicata madre vedova, l’abusivo Mr Murdstone e la sua macabra sorella Jane, la formidabile zia Betsey Trotwood (una prova da star di Tilda Swinton), il geniale lunatico Mr Dick, che è l’omaggio di Dickens alla forza dell’immaginazione, l’inesauribile ottimista Mr Micawber e la sua devota moglie, sempre un passo avanti rispetto agli esattori. E, naturalmente, c’è il vero cattivo, il  raccapricciante parassita Uriah Heep, nelle parole di Iannucci “l’immagine negativa dello stesso David, un avvertimento per il nostro eroe, e per noi, di ciò che David avrebbe potuto diventare … [poiché] lui e Uriah sono costretti a convivere con la loro sfortuna iniziale … David e Uriah sono un bivio nella strada.” Ma la caratteristica più sorprendente è la scelta di attori di colore, dallo stesso Patel a molti altri personaggi non bianchi, nel mondo superbianco del romanzo. Di nuovo il postmodernismo, ovviamente, che lascia spazio alle interpretazioni.

Condivido la valutazione del critico del Guardian P. Bradshaw nella sua recensione The Personal History of David Copperfield – Iannucci apprezza l’assurdità: “L’adattamento geniale e terribilmente simpatico di Iannucci… attinge all’umanità e all’ottimismo dell’autore, anche se a scapito del lato oscuro del romanzo.” Quindi non c’è da stupirsi che sia stato anche il ‘film della settimana’ dell’Observer.

In questa spaventosa epoca di covid, concludiamo con la frase ottimista che il signor Micawber continua a dire mentre è perseguitato dai creditori: “Qualcosa accadrà”. Speriamo!

recensione in video



[English short version –  476 words]

The Personal History of David Copperfield by Armando Iannucci is the third screen rendition of Charles Dickens’ classic. The novelist strongly criticized the XIX century moralistic bourgeoise society, the same one Dickens basically approved: as George Orwell said: “The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail.” Dickens’ social criticism, focused on child exploitation, is conveyed through language and humour, two main features that are at the centre of this film too. David Copperfield is the only novel, largely autobiographical, chronologically narrated in first person by the protagonist who has become a successful writer. The film maintains this feature, even if its narrative technique is modernistic: the film is a long flashback in which we also see Copperfield writing his story, going back and forth in time, rewriting parts of the plot, entering the screen to watch himself as a child and so on.

The movie catches Dickens’ spirit in portraying the gloom of the poor underworld, the factory’s hard life, the prison, the vanity and hypocrisy of the middle-classes, the setting. David is the catalyst of this variegated Victorian world, who goes from rags to riches back and forth several times before the inevitable happy ending,

The film certainly pays homage to Dickens’ style and language: the importance of this feature is also visually underlined by sheets of paper in which David writes his notes. In an article about the novel in The Guardian, Iannucci writes about his “rereading the book and being astonished … by the sheer boisterous energy of the language … in this book, language is all”.

Dev Patel is the open-faced, open-hearted young hero Copperfield. Next to him, all the immortal characters of the novel are there: his nursemaid Peggotty, his delicate widowed mother, the abusive Mr Murdstone and his grisly sister Jane, the formidable aunt Betsey Trotwood (a star turn from Tilda Swinton), the genial lunatic Mr Dick who is Dickens’ homage to the force of imagination, the inexhaustibly optimistic Mr Micawber. And of course the main villain, the creepily parasitic Uriah Heep, in Iannucci’s words “the negative image of David himself, a warning to our hero, and to us, of what David might have become… [since] he and Uriah live with early misfortune …”  The most astonishing feature is the choice of coloured actors, from Patel himself to many other non-white characters in the super-white world of the novel. Postmodernism again, of course.

The Guardian‘s review The Personal History of David Copperfield review – Iannucci relishes the absurdity:  says that “Iannucci’s … adaptation taps into the author’s humanity and optimism, if perhaps at the expense of the novel’s darker side.” The movie was the Observer‘s  Film of the Week too.

In this covid scary age, let’s conclude with the line optimistic Mr Micawber keeps saying as he is haunted by creditors: “Something will turn up!” – hopefully.

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1 Comment

  • Patrizia Bellei

    Reply Reply October 29, 2020

    I liked it a lot.

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