Film preview: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

I am a huge fan of Charles Dickens’s works and have read most of them. I am also a huge fan of the cinematic output of writer and director Armando Iannucci whose sharp and witty screenplays and fast-paced direction of biting satires are a treat to watch. Among his credits are the films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin and TV series Veep and The Thick of It. (The links are to my reviews.)

So imagine my delight when I learned that Iannucci had just released a new film The Personal History of David Copperfield with a truly stellar cast. It is definitely a marriage made in heaven. Anthony Lane gives a very positive review in the September 7, 2020 issue of The New Yorker and I want to highlight one very interesting aspect of the review that relates to the issue I have been discussing recently about representations of color in the entertainment industry.

The casting of the film is color-blind. It’s a practice that has long been standard on the stage, not least in productions of Shakespeare, but that is arriving woefully late in period movies. All hail to Dev Patel, then, whose charmingly hapless gusto, in the title role, does much to sweep the tale along. We also have Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield, an amiable, gullible, and constantly tipsy lawyer. His daughter, Agnes, one of the few sane characters in the whole cavalcade, is portrayed by the biracial actor Rosalind Eleazar. And, while Steerforth is white, his mother, fearsomely played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, is Black. Again, I couldn’t help wishing that Dickens—whose chapter on slavery in “American Notes” (1842), swayed by “the indignant tide of honest wrath,” may be the angriest thing that he ever wrote—were around to inspect this dramatic demonstration of equality.

There is, of course, a countervailing thesis, which proposes that color-blind casting is less of a radical tactic and more of a liberal piety—smoothing over racial divisions as if they barely existed, and thereby erasing a vast chronicle of social and economic oppression. Would an Indian David Copperfield, by this argument, have stood a chance of worldly success? Regardless of our own attitudes, by what right do we export them to an earlier and less tolerant age, in which Mrs. Steerforth’s color would not have gone unremarked? Opinions will be fiercely held on both sides; either way, it’s hard to picture a more vivacious contribution to the debate than Iannucci’s movie.

Here’s the trailer.

This film is definitely on my must-see list.


  1. Bruce says

    More seriously, it does look like a good movie. I don’t see any issue with the casting. It looks like the U.K.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    There are some who say that it’s impossible for us, in the society we live in, to be colorblind, so we should always hold fast to our race-consciousness as an immutable fact of life. I say that, while it’s true that we cannot as individuals escape our awareness of race, the best way to escape it as a society is to imagine how a colorblind person would act, and then try to imitate those actions.

  3. Curt Sampson says

    Iannucci is also the co-creator of Alan Partridge, the ineffable interviewer and host of Knowing Me, Knowing You.

    Regarding the colour-blindness, it worked fine more me in the trailer since it looks like the modern U.K. This of course isn’t historically accurate, but then again, being fiction, neither is the source history. It seems reasonable to go “colour-blind” (though that doesn’t seem like a very accurate term) in such cases, though I’m glad that The Guardian did point out the issues with this.

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