The Personal History Of David Copperfield

Colour-blind casting, or integrated and non-traditional casting, is where an actor or actors have been cast without regard for their ethnicity, gender, age, etc. and it’s where we find ourselves when approaching Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield. Having not read Charles Dickens’s novel I do not know how faithful Iannucci’s vision conveys the source material - casting aside - however what I can tell you is I rather adored this film.

Digital illustration of The Personal History Of David Copperfield, Dev Patel as David Copperfield.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

Populated like a secondary school drama production, Iannucci has stated he simply cast the actors who inhabited the spirit of the characters, but what purpose does this serve? Whilst Dev Patel is a phenomenal actor and his portrayal of David Copperfield was a delight in conveying the tragedy through to comedy that is Copperfield’s life, what I couldn’t help myself from doing whilst watching the film was placing Patel’s South Asian identity onto the character. Assuming how this was a significant part of his identity and experience, and it wasn’t just for Patel. From Benedict Wong’s Mr. Wickfield and Rosalind Eleazar’s Agnes Wickfield to Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Mrs. Steerforth or Anthony Welsh’s Ham Peggotty, for me the characters were entwined with their respective cultural identities that would have existed in 1850. This probably says more about me than the intentions of Iannucci’s expectations of his audience but when confronted with challenging the “norm” expected of us as film watchers, it was a hurdle.

There is a strangeness to accepting colour-blind casting, where characters of one ethnicity are the parents and/or children of a different ethnicity and - embodying the spirit of a character aside - Iannucci has picked to do this only where there is a single parent and no mention of the missing mother or father. Thus, it becomes more orchestrated then one initially expects and again I found myself questioning the point of doing so when this dynamic doesn’t extend beyond the main characters. Fundamentally I had to ask, did this bother me whilst watching the film, did it detract from the drama? Honestly, not at the time but - like a good film should - I haven’t stopped thinking about and questioning what I watched, reflecting on where I stand and asking what others thought of it.

For me, there was something more to Copperfield’s experience, his very skin transforming the journey beyond the mistreatment of a character to one of representation and a South Asian experience. In this way there are less parallels between Jairaj Varsani’s young David Copperfield and say Mark Lester's Oliver! (1968), resonating more with the children in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), as well as its incredibly vibrant colour palette. Whilst Patel’s older Copperfield conveys a more frantic journey of self-discovery, leading a distinctly unique path that doesn’t just address classism but could also be seen to be entwined with caste.

My first film encounter with colour-blind casting was watching Peter Brook's The Mahabharata (1989) which is a retelling of an epic Hindu poem. The film is more abstract in its presentation, offering a shorter version of Brook’s 1985 nine-hour stage production on film, but never once did the diverse casting detract from the story telling. When reflecting on this, maybe this has more to do with its roots in religion, the fantastic or even knowing of its initial theatre presentation. For The Personal History Of David Copperfield, I was just so much more aware of the reality the characters inhabited, of Dickens’s novel documenting a tangible England which we could cross reference with primary or secondary sources. Thusly, when a simple episode of Who Do You Think You Are? can easily explain the journey of ethnic minority groups to England I found it an interesting choice to completely disregard these journeys in the film.

What the film asks us to do is suspend our relationship with what our skin represents, with the stories we imprint upon actors before anyone has even spoken. Is it a privileged filmmaker who undermines the significance our very bodies can speak silently of? I found The Personal History Of David Copperfield a depiction of a British South Asian experience and a portrayal of our expected cultural assimilation.

In addition to Dev Patel, you should also watch it for the fantastic performances by Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie and Peter Singh.