Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The New Era of David Copperfield

I wondered whether or not I would post about The Personal History of David Copperfield. To do so would be to admit to everyone that I went to a movie theatre, so I thought that perhaps I should only post if I had worthwhile comments on the film. It turns out that I do, but you know what? I also decided/realized that I don't need to be hiding anything I'm doing. Yes, I went to a movie theatre. And I was literally the only person watching the movie. There is no need for me to try and defend myself and my choices against hypothetical criticism. 

So David Copperfield, eh? Although there have been many film adaptations of the story, I have not seen any of them. I rather think that, though once one of the most popular Charles Dickens books, this book has fallen out of the modern consciousness a bit. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like people basically know Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol and then maybe Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. So there is already a degree of freshness to the story for those of us unfamiliar with it.

But there is much more freshness to this adaptation, isn't there? Sure, there is the way in which it subtly uses CG to help tell the story, like when Mr. Murdstone's hand reaches into David's happy memories. Nicely done effects. The big topic, though, of course, is the color blind casting. That is, it isn't really color blind per se. It's more that it isn't constrained by color. 

The great thing about this of course is that it allows more actors to have access to more types of roles. You only see non-white actors in certain historical settings if they're lower class characters (usually slaves or "wild natives" or one-dimensional guides or some combination of the three). So it's always nice in semi-fantasy settings like Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella to have a black family also trying on the slipper or what have you. David Copperfield asks, why limit things like that to fantasy? If film adaptations of historical novels already take liberties with historical facts, why not do the same with color? Is it really such a big deal or disturbance to the telling of the story?

Sure, if you were making Uncle Tom's Cabin, it would get a little confusing and wouldn't suit the purposes of the story if you casted color blind. But most of the books aren't like that. I don't think the 2011 Wuthering Heights got enough recognition for casting a black Heathcliff (though it was based on the book's description of Heathcliff, one might still consider it a liberal interpretation of phrasing). Still, that was an instance where casting went with story. This brings up an interesting point. If anyone were against color blind casting Victorian movies, why not at least cast the "lower class" characters more diversely? The popular Oliver Twist, for instance. What's to prevent casting a non-white actor to play the Artful Dodger or Nancy? (And just because there were less non-white upper class people at the time doesn't mean there were none, so maybe the occasional character in the background at the bookshop or something, too?)

This of course isn't what David Copperfield did. David Copperfield said hey, these are the people here and now when we are all getting together and putting on clothing and getting out our little cameras to play out this story and so these are the characters they're going to play. There are no rules to it. While you could believe that David has a white mother because we never see his father, his white friend has a black mother and his future wife Rosalind Wickfield doesn't look much like her father, either. So the casting, like I mentioned, is not really color blind. It is aware that our eyes are not blind to color; it just says that sticking to "realistic" casting doesn't matter in this context. That's why the casting is done in pairs like this; we are meant to notice it and see that it is fine and doesn't disrupt the story at all. We already know that they're actors playing roles and not actually related to one another. 

And in a way, it adds to the story. This story is all about class and how people rise and fall within their worldly circumstances and sometimes try to be something a little different from what they are (whether that means striving for self-improvement, lying like Mr. Micawber does, or conniving like Uriah Heep does). The story exposes many of the pretenses of society. David is the son of a lady one minute, a low class factory worker the next, then a gentleman, then low class again, and back up. It's all a bit of pretense: he is still David no matter where he is or what other people think of him at the moment. It's not entirely unlike how all of the actors who play characters are still people, no matter how they might be considered differently as far as casting goes at different points in time (the times when they would cast white actors even in ethnic roles because there are only white actors, the times when non-white actors got a great role because they had the physical look for it, the times when they found they could get lots of great roles but really wished they could play Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist or Elizabeth Bennett or Ebenezer Scrooge). 

Okay, yes, the casting affected the film enough that it's all I've talked about for my whole post. But I wouldn't have bothered talking about it if I hadn't enjoyed the movie and thought that it was well-done as far as pacing and theme and costumes and acting and everything. And because such a nice, well-rounded, likable movie had this type of casting, it does indeed suggest the beginning of a new era. I love Victorian novels, but they're, well, old. Filmmakers are always looking for ways to freshen up the favorites especially when they've been adapted a dozen times already. So why not do so with the casting? 

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