By Chris Cannataro
The Toronto International Film Festival is back in full force with a star-studded cast translating a classic tale to the modern era. Armando Iannuci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield made an opening night premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre – a fitting venue for a tale set in Victorian England.
The Personal History of David Copperfield has witty writing and amazing actors like Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie, who execute these moments spectacularly. At some points, you may find yourself a bit lost, with the emphasis on heavy Victorian-British dialects that the screenwriter’s employ. At some points, the writers outwit themselves with an almost unintelligible conversation that has no role in advancing the plot, but rather reminding the audience that this was once how people in Victorian England interacted. But I digress; the comedic value it adds to the film is part of what makes The Personal History of David Copperfield such an enjoyable movie.
The incredible set and costume design play an equally important role in the movie as the actor interpretations. Sweeping shots of the English countryside juxtaposed by shots of the dirty, grimy and poverty-stricken streets of Industrial London add incredible effect to the power of the story. This, in synchronicity with the editing and overall direction of the film, create a very well executed cinematic experience.
This film holds the energy of a stage performance. But this is not to say Iannucci’s work is without its flaws. The colourblind casting was something that left me thinking, but by no means was it because of the performances of the cast or wanting any semblance of the film to be “historically accurate”. In an interview with the BBC, Director Armando Iannucci spoke on his logic behind the casting: “…I also wanted it to feel contemporary, although it's set in 1840. For the characters in it, it's the present day, so it should feel like the present day, and feel reflective of now.”
To me, Iannucci is paying any attention to the colonial elephant in the room by refusing to give it any more attention than it needs. Those who see the elephant know it was present then and is present now, and played a huge part in constructing the racialized identities we are trying so hard to deconstruct today.
The cast got me thinking about the 1840s, and what realities were omitted from the film. The reality of the British Empire’s colonial reign was being enjoyed by those living in England, with their investments overseas, often without witnessing the exploitative labour that earned them their wealth. It got me thinking about the lasting impact British Colonialism holds even in contemporary times, especially when considering that the star of the movie, and numerous other cast members, have lineage to places that would have been considered colonies in the 1840s. It got me thinking about Charles Dickens, the original author of David Copperfield, who by today’s standards was known to hold questionable views on race relations and Anti-Semitic portrayals of Jewish characters. It got me thinking of how Dickens was as much a product of his times as we are to now, and how important it is that we make sure colonialism stays a thing of the past while trying to construct a hopeful future.
Big-budget films like these play a major role in how we are constantly re-imagining and re-interpreting history, whether or not those producing the movie want to take on that responsibility. But this film is less about life in the 1840s as it is a film about life’s trials and tribulations. I applaud Iannucci’s willingness to see and accept the past rooted in this story, how it’s scars and influence are visible today, and still choosing to depict that story with a cast that is reflective of the diversity present in contemporary times.
It’s hard to smell the roses without getting a whiff of the fertilizer. And I think The Personal History of David Copperfield does a good job of presenting a bit of both. It’s a fun movie. Don’t expect too much from it, and you should have a good time.
*Editor’s Note: The Personal History of David Copperfield screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘19.