Orange Thursday: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) and X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield

Every Thursday, TMINE reviews two movies, carefully avoiding infringing a former mobile phone company’s trademarked marketing gimmick

As per usual of late, Orange Thursday is aiming for both the high- and the low-brow this week, which means on aggregate TMINE is middle-brow. Sounds about right.

The two movies I’ve chosen to subject my retinas to are:

  • The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) – Armando Iannucci’s surprisingly comedic (and loose) Dickens adaptation
  • X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) – ill advised attempt to have another go at the same source material that gave us X-Men 3, just with the X-Men: First Class cast.

See you after the ads and the trailers.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

Plot

Loosish adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield in which the titular character, despite being born just after his father’s death, has a wonderful childhood with his mother, Clara, and her friend and servant Peggotty.

However, Clara marries a man called Edward Murdstone, a harsh disciplinarian who eventually decides the previously happy child needs to be sent away to school to be taught how not to enjoy himself. After Clara dies, Murdstone decides to top this by sending David away to work in a factory.

Slowly, David picks his life up. He runs away to Dover to stay with his aunt, who finds him a place with a solicitor called Wickfield; there he meets his childhood friend Agnes. As an adult, he becomes a clerk – and aspiring writer – and meets Dora Spenlow, with whom he falls in love instantly.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

TMINE verdict

It’s a little hard to accept that in the exact same week that we received the decidedly luke-warm Avenue 5 on our plates that its writers and director would also serve us up a treat like The Personal History of David Copperfield.

It would be a bit of stretch to describe as post-modern what is a loose-ish but nevertheless reasonably faithful adaptation of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical classic. But at the very least, we have to think about using the term, since the film melds Dickens’ life and story even more than the book does.

Just as the book itself is told in the first person and akin to Dickens’ own readings of his works during his lifetime, the story is presented as a theatrical presentation of the eponymous Copperfield’s (Dev Patel) life story by Copperfield. It then covers all the main plot points of the novel, but with a decidedly modern approach.

This includes occasional reminders that we’re watching something being told in a theatre and the entirely colour-blind casting, with even characters related by blood played by actors of different races.

But we also have Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick essentially being transformed from ‘Victorian mad’ in the book into a bona fide schizophrenic in the movie, with his kite now becoming therapy to release the words of Charles I that are filling up his brain here. Patel even has conversations with his younger self.

Meanwhile, Clara and Dora are played by the same actress – Morfydd Clark, And Clark as Dora at one point even begs (spoiler alert) to be written out of the story as she ‘doesn’t fit’, which admittedly is a nicer fate for her than the story’s actual ending and a decent enough supertextual criticism of Dickens’ inclusion of her in the story in the first place. See what happens when you get paid by the word and no one’s editing you?

And indeed, the whole thing is rounded off with (spoiler alert) the ‘real’ characters turning up to critique the story that Copperfield has published/performed.

Donkeys!

The story is largely comedic and played by comedy actors – Peter Capaldi, Darren Boyd, Hugh Laurie, Matthew Cottle, Victor McGuire and Paul Whitehouse, to name but a few – but the serious actors are there for the comedy, too, including Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw and Anna Maxwell Martin.

And, to be honest, it is very funny indeed. Sometimes laugh out loud funny. You’ll suspect it’s because of Iannucci, but actually a lot of the time, it’s down to Dickens, surprisingly enough. Yes, even the donkeys.

Nevertheless, despite its overall joyfulness, with Ianucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell using various postmodern mechanisms and directorial techniques to temper the book’s darkness, there is a somewhat bleak section in the middle that I found made the film harder going than other sections.

Still, that’s more or less my only reserve about a film that only grows stronger in the memory. It’s easily Iannucci’s best film and also his funniest work in ages. Everyone involved is on their A-game and if you never thought Dickens was funny, now’s your chance to learn the error of your ways.

TMINE rating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Available on iTunes, Amazon and Cinema Paradiso

Plot

The X-Men face their most formidable and powerful foe when one of their own, Jean Grey, starts to spiral out of control. During a rescue mission in outer space, Jean is nearly killed when she’s hit by a mysterious cosmic force. Once she returns home, this force not only makes her infinitely more powerful, but far more unstable. The X-Men must now band together to save her soul and battle aliens that want to use Grey’s new abilities to rule the galaxy.

TMINE verdict

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is essentially the X-Men: First Class franchise’s take on X-Men 3, which was by a country mile the worst of all the original X-Men movies. Nevertheless, despite its reputation for being absolute sh*te, there are a surprisingly large number of good things to say about X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

For a start, it’s nowhere near as bad as its predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse. It also has some of the best superpowers scenes in any of the X-Men movies, both old and new, with some real imagination and innovation going into what could have been simple twatting matches.

It’s also happy to take surprisingly large decisions, such as the killing of one major character early on in the movie – although given this was always going to be the last of this particular franchise, it’s perhaps not too brave a move on its part.

All the same, on balance, this is a pretty bad movie. It ruins characters. It’s horrifically crass in its depictions of rape and abuse and their effects. It often makes almost no sense. Actors are clearly in it for the money in numerous scenes, while others clearly have forgotten they don’t yet have established careers yet and need to work harder.

Similarly, X-Men: First Class was set in the 1960s and with each movie being set roughly 10 years since the previous one, it’s now 30 years since everyone was supposed to be 21 yet everyone looks 30 at best. Some mutants have excuses, but Michael Fassbender should be looking a lot more like Ian McKellen by now.

The movie does try to address some interesting themes, such as the nature of control, particularly male control of women, but does such a ham-fisted job, you’ll almost imagine it’s arguing for the other side of the coin for which it professes to advocate.

If you accidentally watch X-Men: Dark Phoenix, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover it’s normal awful. But there are much better choices of (superhero) movies out there, so don’t go out of your way to watch it.

TMINE rating

Rating: 2 out of 5.