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David Copperfield: strikingly modern?

The "modernity" of Dickens's 1850 novel considered in light of a new film adaptation.

We often speak of a ‘writer for our times’, the ‘voice of a generation’ – there is this need to define our age, to make sense of it, and so we reach for the distinctive modernity of Sally Rooney, ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’. 

Armando Iannucci, however, goes for Dickens. 

Charles Dickens, that era-defining Victorian, in the golden age of empire, of lace fripperies and silly lapdogs? Scepticism is perfectly justified. If it strikes a chord, maybe it’s that of Brexit nostalgia. Yet, Iannucci effectively proves otherwise, opening up David Copperfield afresh to a wider audience, with surprisingly sympathetic resonances.

 “It’s the dark and serious nature of his themes that make his novels seem surprisingly modern,” argued Iannucci. These words, spoken in his 2012 BBC documentary Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, anticipate the vision propelling his 2020 award-winning film The Personal History of David Copperfield

Here the idea of this 170-year-old novel as ‘modern’ is strikingly foregrounded by Iannucci’s decision for colour-blind casting – a decision in stark contrast to the 1999 adaptation and which, as The Guardian enthusiastically observed, ‘could change film forever’. 

But also striking is how the ‘dark and serious nature’ emphasised by Iannucci in 2012 seems noticeably absent in his own film. Deborah Ross, writing in The Spectator, goes so far as to call it ‘a breezy soap that doesn’t want to go anywhere too dark’, and ‘feels more like CliffNotes than the real deal’. 

Ross is correct insofar as darkness is definitely not the dominant note of the piece. In a huge departure from the dirt and shadows of ‘Dickensian London’, the colours have a bright, exuberant richness, while surreal transitions – a giant hand bursting into a house, a carriage surging through a room – enhance the fast-paced, excitable narrative. The problem is that Iannucci does, or at the very least did, want to go somewhere ‘dark’. In his documentary, for example, he criticised previous TV adaptations for characterising the pecunious Mr Micawber as ‘a sort of gregarious, fat, rather optimistic chap’ when Micawber’s struggle with debt represents ‘a sophisticated painful read’. 

Sure enough, his 2020 adaptation casts the thin and spry Peter Capaldi as Micawber, and includes the scene he highlighted years ago where Micawber makes knife-cutting gestures across his throat. But any seriousness to this moment is arguably brief and drowned out by comedy; one review in The Financial Times comments cheerfully on the ‘chipper tone the film is after’. Similarly, the marriage of the young David and Dora, damned as ‘nuptial suicide’ by Iannucci in 2012, is represented by light-hearted comedic spats. Dora does not die pathetically onscreen, but symbolically chooses to leave David’s writing room. 

It is worth examining our disappointment in not seeing Dora’s death. Why should we see the child-bride die? The expectation of faithfulness to the novel; also, a suggestion of a voyeuristic element to audience desires, and a very specific kind of visual grammar or narrative convention, which Iannucci disrupts.

The film is more critical and relevant than it first appears. Colour-blind casting sounds the film out as very much belonging to the 21st century, but not only as some kind of ‘milestone’ (or virtue-signalling for cynics). It is importantly a deliberate reflection of the diversity of eclectic personalities celebrated by Dickens’s David Copperfield, that further reinforces the theme of universalism – a need for a kind of inclusive and accepting affection for all. But also (and here we enter the dark) universal struggle.

It is possible to see the flippancy to Micawber’s mimed action of slitting his throat, as echoing how almost normalised it is, to die that way. Britain’s suicide rates in 2019 had risen to the highest level since 2002. We laugh; indeed, the film is made for laughing, but it is made for questioning too. This is not a mere ‘breezy soap’. It is brisk and fast-paced – so too is the 21st century, with its attention economy, its frantic need to move on, even past the street-worn homeless. In an interview last month with Anushka Asthana from The Guardian, Iannucci asserted that David Copperfield is “all about ‘who am I’, this very modern theme of status anxiety and imposter syndrome… Do I fit in?” Dora’s resigned words ‘write me out’ have more chilling implications when we hear them in this context. Death today is more about being written out than ever before, whether it means being over-written and re-defined by the media, or the parallel silencing of our digital selves when we pass away. 

True, the film is not always successful. In many ways its themes could have been drawn out or elucidated further. Even so, Ianucci is on to something here. 21st century darkness is often formed otherwise, in the blank glare of electric lights, behind the flash of a camera, or under the softly-filtered sweetness of our Instagram snapshots. Still, Dickensian London is not so far from this as earlier adaptations may have us believe and David Copperfield, contrary to expectations, is not only for the odd student of literature but most importantly all of us. Yes: ‘This narrative is far more than mere fiction.’

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