The Personal History of David Copperfield
Iannucci's adaptation captures a difficult tone, but botches its "colorblind" casting
Unfortunately, what much of the Western world considers “classics” of literature are mostly populated by white characters in white settings. This leads to their adaptations in more diverse times to seem slightly exclusionary. There have been some imaginative twists to certain adaptations, mostly on the stage. A Shakespeare play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music portrayed Julius Caesar as a play between rival tribal factions in Africa in order to include an all-black cast. In television Elementary set the Sherlock Holmes stories in modern day America, allowing for a more diverse cast including Lucy Liu as Watson. Thus a twist to the all-white casts of Charles Dickens’ stories is incredibly welcome; we’ve been delivered just that with Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019).
David Copperfield is largely set and told in the time period of its novel - industrial 19th century England – and we follow the travails and picaresque journeys of our titular character (here played by Dev Patel). We see him come from a comfortable family, to only be thrown out by his cruel stepfather (Darren Boyd), working at a corking factory in London, then shifting to living with his well-to-do aunt and uncle (Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie), etc.
Iannucci had previously been a staple writer and creator for political satire or comedy. His HBO show Veep (2012-2019), was a milestone in political comedy, as was his previous work in British television with The Thick of It (2005-2012). As a filmmaker Iannucci has been more timid to breakthrough. His screenplay In the Loop (2009) made quite the splash and was nominated for an Oscar, and Iannucci’s post-Veep work included the difficult but very enjoyable The Death of Stalin (2017) looking at Soviet politics. To shift from such a specific space to adapting a classical work of literature might seem like quite a leap for someone used only to satire. However, Iannucci seems to fit quite snugly with Dickens’ dark, but creatively humorous prose. In fact, once you sit and think about it, Iannucci’s previous work is a perfect example of the tone that Dickens infused in much of his work.
Many of the previous adaptations of Dickens’ novels sticks too close to the seriousness that many attach to the Victorian era, failing to grasp the playfulness and irony that the British author subtly underlaid in his work. Iannucci is able to not only correlate his and Dicken’s narrative tones, but also infuses a similar atmosphere with the film editing, using creative transitions and playing around with the form of narration. This informs the character journeys while not overshadowing Dickens’ narrative, proving to be a nice and humble compliment.
Iannucci is also able to arrange an impressive cast of British character actors, from the aforementioned Swinton and Laurie, to Peter Capaldi, Ben Wishaw, and Paul Whitehouse. Patel is also great in the lead role, exuding his charisma and likeability so that viewers have no problem in admitting him as our surrogate. However, it is in the casting that I see a particular problem, specifically with the seemingly progressive “colorblind” casting.
This iteration of David Copperfield mixes around characters of different ethnicities in the 19th century with no mention as to its seeming peculiarity. I’m all for better on-screen representation, and specifically for giving a chance for actors of color to be able to interpret roles where their skin is not their defining character trait. However, the clash of the film’s setting with that of the racial diversity risks doing more harm than good. This adaptation of David Copperfield has come out at a particularly racially sensitive time worldwide, and colorblind casting might be sending the wrong message. The first problem is the seeming washing of the true racial problems and tensions that existed not only in the 19th century, but very much today. By creating a utopic world, this film is excusing and normalizing the real world-dynamics, by not showcasing a certain urgency, or even problem. Filmmakers might argue that it is by normalizing this “colorblind” casting that the world gets closer to racial harmony. However, I would argue that by showing everyone merry and joyful you are robbing viewers of the message that something is still deeply flawed and must be done. This normalization works more like a blindfold than a spur into action. By not noting someone’s skin color you are also robbing them of a big part of their identity, as this characteristic very much still defines who we are in society.
The second problem I saw with this particular casting decision was with placing white “classics” as the art that colored people should aspire to. I’m not by any means downgrading Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens’ work, but they are not the only pinnacle that performers can aspire to. To aspire to whiteness and a very particular white cultural aspect, role, or story can be problematic if one is telling it from the point of view of a person of color; it sends the message that aspiring to one’s own race is not sufficient. Again, for clarification, this isn’t a appeal for artistic segregation, far from it. But in telling the story of David Copperfield in the very white setting of upper class Victorian England, you are sending a message of forced adaptation from one colored person’s reality to that of the white elites. An adaptation of David Copperfield with a majorly diverse and “colorblind” cast could certainly be done, but with a changed setting that isn’t as imposing of a specific culture. This is why the adaptations I mentioned before of Julius Caesar and Sherlock Holmes worked so well; they pivoted the story to a setting where the same narrative and characters would make sense as people of color and give way to a new interpretation. Iannucci’s casting and setting with his David Copperfield instead gives the sense of a well-intentioned, but slightly tone-deaf decision that is more harmful than progressive.
In the end, the racial casting choice weighs heavily on this newest adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield. It unfortunately waters down what Iannucci had achieved (and was arguably the most difficult in such an adaptation), capturing Dickens’ unique tone and rhythm. The film is well acted, but the casting decision and particularly the choice of setting bog down the wittier aspects of the film so that one questions whether the filmmakers had really thought through the importance of such a decision.