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Film reviews: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Gold dust: Dev Patel as Copperfield with Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth


The Personal History of David Copperfield

(PG) ★★★★✩

YET another Dickens adaptation? Snore. But ‘DINGALINGALING!’ — no snoozing ahead here! This fresh, funny and cheeringly confident adaptation by Armando Iannucci (The Death Of Stalin) is out to wake us up.

For starters, there’s the brilliant, Bafta-nominated colour-blind casting. Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, who just gets better and better with age (and he’s still only 29), makes for a delightful Charles Dickens, narrating the writer’s semi-autobiographical tale of orphan-about-town David Copperfield (also Patel). We follow, or rather, gallop through young David’s travails — from rare boyhood joys, including a trip to the seaside to meet an adorable Paul Whitehouse, to his childhood slavery in a blacking factory, his near misses with the bailiffs (enter Peter Capaldi’s incorrigible sponger, Mr Micawber) and his painful climbs up and tumbles off the social ladder. All the while he’s aided by his bonkers, donkey-hating Aunt Betsey Trotwood (another superbly eccentric Tilda Swinton supporting role).

Squidging Dickens’s 600-page novel into two hours is no easy task but writer/director Iannucci tackles it with vim and gusto. An Oxford English literature graduate, he has a love and reverence for Dickens’s language and wordplay. Less expected is that his charming screenplay, co-written with long-term collaborator Simon Blackwell (Four Lions, In The Loop), prizes heart and kindness over satirical bite.

Essentially a string of vignettes, the pace stumbles in places but Iannucci directs with brio — his vividly drawn characters, also including Ben Wishaw’s cringing Uriah Heep and Hugh Laurie’s lovable Mr Dick, all singing from the same hymn sheet. Visual dash and aplomb abound, and the production design is a dream.

It’s rare to find a British film in which a character’s ethnicity is not a plot point and seeing a non-white face as Dickens/Copperfield gives this Victorian tale of poverty a relatable modern feel. For today, as in Dickens’s time, it’s arguably class rather than race that’s the most ingrained English prejudice of all.

The verdict

Dev Patel breaks new ground in this delightful adaptation

Everything: The Real Thing Story

(15) ★★✩✩✩

This rudimentary rock doc takes us back to the long, hot summer in Liverpool when four pretty boys took the charts by storm — no, not the Fab Four but a soul group, straight outta Toxteth, called The Real Thing. Dubbed ‘the black Beatles’ by the media, their international 1976 hit, You To Me Are Everything, became the first ever UK No.1 single by an all-black British band.

This historic achievement isn’t, however, enough to carry a 94-minute movie. And even though director Simon Sheridan puts in a fair amount of research, conducting new interviews with surviving band members (still touring 45 years on), and including archive footage and talking heads such as Billy Ocean, Trevor Nelson and Kim Wilde (you feel the lack of Paul McCartney), he never fully grasps his subject. What should have been a tight, 45-minute film feels like an overlong rough cut.

Still, there are nice insights into the group’s cultural significance from the likes of singer Janet Kay, who as a teenager had a VHS tape labelled ‘Black People!’ poised to record any rare black appearances on the telly. And Everything also provides welcome recognition that Liverpool has more musical landmarks than Penny Lane.

The Holy Mountain 4K restoration

(18) ★★★★★

Nearly 50 years on, there’s never been anything to touch 1973 film The Holy Mountain for sheer mind-blowing weirdness. Within seconds your senses are short-circuiting from an overload of brain-bendingly bizarre and transfixingly original imagery — naked ladies are being ritually shaved by a faceless black-clad shaman, a limbless man is sharing a spliff with a crucified hermit, the conquest of Mexico restaged with frogs. Hey, it was the 1970s.

Part funded by John Lennon, this is Chilean director Alejando Jodorowsky’s psychedelic follow-up to his visionary ‘acid western’ El Topo (also getting a 4K cinema reissue) and is similarly rambling when it comes to prosaic details like actual plot. I bow to Rotten Tomatoes’ one sentence synopsis: ‘The most powerful individuals in the solar system are out to become gods and rule the universe.’ So there you have it. Stunning.