The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannuci, known as the man behind such sharp, profane political satires as In the Loop, Veep, and The Death of Stalin, might not seem like many people’s first choice when thinking of a filmmaker to adapt Charles Dickens to the screen. But this adaptation of the book, said to be Dickens’ personal favorite (and indeed, most personal) of his works, is made with the same degree of wit and intelligence as Iannuci’s previous screen works.
The Personal History of David Copperfield tells the story of an orphan (played by Jairaj Varsani as a child and Dev Patel after he grows up) who in the spirit of Dickens finds himself thrown from misadventure to misfortune and back to misadventure, occasionally with a brief pause for happiness and pleasure. David finds himself bearing the ill will of an unloving stepfather and step-aunt (Darren Boyd and Gwendolyn Christie, whose hilariously brutal line deliveries demonstrate the movie’s strongest thematic connection to Iannuci’s previous works), life in a workhouse, a small respite with his aunt, law school, and eventually life on his own in London, which he soon discovers carries brutalities of its own. Dev Patel (no stranger to Dickensian stories himself after starring in Slumdog Millionaire and Lion) is perfectly cast as David, balancing the sadness and comedy of a character who tries his best to keep a high spirit through such a tumultuous life.
Iannucci has a large cast to work with, and it’s to his credit that every actor is allowed time to shine. The all-star cast includes the aforementioned Patel, Boyd, and Christie as well as Peter Capaldi (In the Loop, Doctor Who) as the debt-ridden Mr. Micawber (who David rooms with while working at the factory), the always-wonderful Tilda Swinton as David’s aunt (with a hilarious Hugh Laurie as her companion Mr. Dick, whose eccentricities include the belief that the thoughts of King Charles I have been sent into this mind), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) and Rosalind Eleazar (Harlots) as the proprietors of David’s school, Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk, The White Queen) as a classmate of David’s who is as classist and smug as he is self-loathing, and Ben Whishaw as a particularly slimy Uriah Heep (whose outward displays of humility hide a devious and manipulative soul). It’s a testament to how well balanced Iannucci’s screenplay and direction is that none of these brilliant performers is off screen long enough to feel absent, and neither do any of the deliberately color-blind casting choices feel out of place (Iannucci is, after all, the man who brilliantly cast Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev).
But none of these colorful supporting characters, nor the crackerjack editing or lovely score, would work nearly as well in the film without Dev Patel as its center. He is a perfect instrument for Armando Iannucci to build his story around, in the sort of role that is far too easy to take for granted. Patel makes you feel every moment of sadness, frustration, desperation and joy in the story, and that’s exactly what you need from a character in an adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel.
What more is there to say about zombies? Certainly, between the late George A. Romero’s films, the various incarnations of The Walking Dead, and endless video games exploring the concept, there can’t be a new or distinctive take on the genre, right? Well, if filmmakers like Jeff Barnaby, writer/director of Blood Quantum, have anything to say about it that is most certainly not the case.
Blood Quantum is a zombie horror movie set on the Red Crow reservation, where the indigenous residents discover they are the only ones immune to infection from the virus. Michael Greyeyes (Women Walks Ahead, The New World) stars as Traylor, a police chief whose life and community are far from stable even before the virus begins to raise the dead. Barnaby described his story as in part a tale of Native fathers, who like many people of color are often stereotyped as being absent or neglectful. In Barnaby’s world these men, flawed as they may be, will always fight for their families and make room for others who need help. Alongside Greyeyes are Forrest Goodluck and Kiowa Gordon as his sons, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers as his ex-wife, and Stonehorse Lone Goemon as Traylor’s retired, but still incredibly noble and capable, father.
Another element of the story Barnaby tells, and one of the reasons it is so distinctive, is the use of an apocalyptic zombie war as an allegory for the 1981 raids on the Restigouche Reservation by the Quebecoise Provisional Police. In the Q&A after the screening, Barnaby (who witnessed the raids first-hand) cited many times the 1984 documentary Incident at Restigouche as inspiration for this movie, even mentioning specific locations and even shots that were either recreated or echoed in Blood Quantum. The anger Traylor and the other indigenous characters feel, and the distrust of the white people who eventually take up residence alongside them in the Reservation, is by equal means completely understandable and an obvious catalyst for potential disaster.
Around and throughout the social commentary, Jeff Barnaby has also expertly crafted the sequences of action and horror, executing them as well as any from the more slick big-budget zombie fests we have seen as of late. But just as important are the characters, and that is executed with equal care and success. The audience screams, gasps, and cheers, but not simply because of the gore (although that is plentiful) but because the events are happening to people we care about and feel empathy towards. It’s something that is absolutely necessary for the success of a horror movie, and all too often absent from the more cynically manufactured examples of the genre. But Jeff Barnaby, working from both ideas and genres that he clearly loves, has created a movie that executes both perfectly.
A buffalo, set to be butchered, escapes from his captors and begins wreaking havoc in the nearby village. The villagers are distracted by their own needs and interests, and neither the police nor the local politicians are of much use, so they recruit to take down the animal a hunter who had previously been excommunicated from the village in part because of the actions of the butcher who the buffalo escaped from in the first place.
This seems like a simple setup, correct? If produced in the United States, it could well end up looking like this summer’s sleeper horror hit Crawl, a simple meat-and-potatoes monster horror flick. But under the eyes of Malayalam filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery, we get something much more distinctive and weird, something between a disaster movie and the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, where the very fabric of society begins to fray and the small Indian village descent into chaos, with the buffalo itself seeming like a convenient excuse.
Pellissery has been described as a master of controlled chaos, and he certainly put that on display here. There are action sequences with literally hundreds of human bodies involved, branding weapons or carrying torches just trying to kill or even just find that damn buffalo. The buffalo itself is no Jaws… it’s almost always portrayed as a simple animal, with no anthropomorphization done. The goal is less to make the buffalo more human and instead to make the humans (almost entirely men, naturally) seem more animalistic. The result is sometimes repetitive or even overwhelming, but it’s directed with such a distinctive brand of insanity that you will never fail to be entertained. I sat down to watch Jallikattu knowing nothing at all about the movie other than its title, and there’s definitely something magical about seeing something as completely and utterly distinctive and unique as what Lijo Jose Pellissery has done here.