Culture Representation: Taking place in an otherworldly dimension, the dramatic film “Nine Days” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing souls who can observe humans on Earth.
Culture Clash: A “soul gatekeeper” must decide which one among five soul candidates will get to be reborn as a human on Earth.
Culture Audience: “Nine Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching thoughtful dramas about what spiritual life could look like before being born.
What if you were given the responsibility of deciding which souls could be born into humans? And what if you were one of those souls who had to be evaluated as “worthy enough” to be chosen? Those are the questions facing the main characters of writer/director Edson Oda’s feature-film directorial debut “Nine Days,” a somber-yet-hopeful meditative film about the existence of spirits in a dimension where they are chosen to either continue their lives in a human being or disappear entirely.
It’s a heavy burden for anyone to bear, so it’s no wonder that “soul gatekeeper” Will (played by Winston Duke) takes it so seriously, he almost never cracks a smile during the entire story. Will exists in an unnamed dimension that looks like an outpost house in a remote area, where he spends a lot of his time looking at several stacked-up TV monitors at once. (“Nine Days” was actually filmed in Utah.) Each TV monitor shows Will what’s going on at that moment in the lives of various people on Earth. The monitored people’s entire lives are recorded from birth to death on VHS tapes (yes, you read that right), so Will has a massive archive of people’s histories.
There’s one monitored person in particular who has a profound effect on Will. She is a 28-year-old successful violinist named Amanda Grazzini (played by Lisa Starrett), who was a child prodigy and is described as “emotionally strong.” That’s why it’s a shock to Will when Amanda commits suicide by driving her car into a wall. This tragic death happens early on in the movie and is the catalyst for what happens in the rest of the story, so it’s not really spoiler information.
Amanda’s suicide sends the usually unflappable Will into an emotional tailspin. With her soul having left Earth, Will now has to decide which soul will be born on Earth, to replace Amanda’s life that was taken away. Five soul candidates arrive at the house and are interviewed separately by Will.
Each candidate is evaluated for nine days. All of the candidates are told that after this nine-day evaluation process, anyone who isn’t chosen will then cease to exist. Each rejected candidate gets to decide on a personal ultimate fantasy that will get fulfilled as a sendoff.
The five candidates are:
Mike (played by David Rysdahl), a serious soul who is prone to worry a lot.
Maria (played by Arianna Ortiz), a shy soul who’s somewhat afraid of trying new things.
Kane (played by Bill Skarsgård), an arrogant soul who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.
Alexander (played by Tony Hale), a wisecracking soul who can be neurotic and insecure.
Emma (played by Zazie Beetz), a “free spirit” soul who is naturally inquisitive.
Will has a friendly co-worker named Kyo (played by Benedict Wong), who is not as uptight as Will. Kyo’s job is to give his opinion to Will on whether or not Will has chosen well. Even though Will has a monumental task of deciding which souls will live and which will cease to exist, “Nine Days” makes it clear that Will is not God or some other supreme being. In fact, at one point in the story, Will describes himself as “a cog in the wheel.”
The candidates are told they must answer certain questions about what they would do when faced with certain ethical dilemmas. Will assures them that there are no right or wrong answers, but they must answer truthfully. All of the candidates except for Emma answer the questions.
Emma tells Will that she can’t answer the questions because she doesn’t know how what her answer would be in these ethical dilemmas. Emma also replies to Will’s questions with more questions. This back-and-forth conflict irritates Will, but it also intrigues him.
During this evaluation process, the candidates are encouraged to look at the TV screens to watch the lives of three people on Earth: Rick Virgil (played by Sterlin English), a 14-year-old who is being bullied; Luiza Coolin (played by Erika Vásquez), a newlywed; and Fernando Pereira (played by Álvaro Cortez), a police officer.
“Nine Days” is a richly layered film that might be too much to wade through for people who prefer more straightforward stories about life in other dimensions. The acting is solid all around, but the heart of the movie is in how Will and Emma get to know each other better. Will has a dark secret that is hinted at and eventually revealed. It explains a lot of his angst. If viewers are willing to tolerate the slow pacing of “Nine Days” and immerse themselves in this fascinating story, then they will be rewarded with seeing a movie that will inspire existential thoughts that go beyond the movie’s 124 minutes.
Sony Pictures Classics released “Nine Days” in New York City and Los Angeles on July 30, 2021. The movie’s theatrical release expanded to more U.S. cities on August 6, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in China and in San Francisco, the superhero action film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.
Culture Clash: A Chinese man who ran away to the U.S. as a teenager, in order to get away from his ruthless overlord father, must confront his past and the power of 10 magical arm rings that are the source of the story’s conflict.
Culture Audience: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and are looking for an enjoyable origin story that is not a sequel or a prequel.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” has plenty of heart and adventurous spirit to satisfy superhero movie fans. It’s too bad that the title character has a personality that’s duller than the average Marvel superhero. Shang-Chi is frequently outshined by his wisecracking female best friend/sidekick. And there’s a long stretch in the middle of the film that drags the pace down considerably.
Directed by Daniel Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Rings” is an origin story that doesn’t dazzle in a spectacular way, but it gets the job done in a crowd-pleasing way that serves the movie’s target audience well. Cretton co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. It’s yet another Hollywood studio superhero story about a superhero with “daddy issues.” The big difference this time is that the majority of the cast is Asian, mostly of Chinese heritage.
One of the problems with the movie is that the climactic showdown scene doesn’t offer much that most movie and TV audiences haven’t already seen before. To put it bluntly: This movie needed better villains. In “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” there’s a villain named Razor Fist (played by Florian Munteanu) with a machete as an arm. That pales in comparison to a “Stars Wars: Rise of Skywalker” villainous henchman named Cardo that had a shotgun for an arm.
Battles with dragons? Yawn. It’s very “Game of Thrones” and not much different from any recent big-budget live-action movie where the dragons are the big monsters that have to be defeated. And a hero going in a one-on-one duel fight against his villain father? Ever hear of “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi”?
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is literally an origin story, since viewers see how, in China, his parents met, fell in love, got married, and had Shang-Chi as their first child. The movie shows Shang-Chi as a baby, as a pre-teen child (played by Jayden Zhang), as a teenager (played by Arnold Sun) and as an adult (played by Simu Liu). Shang Chi’s father Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) was a corrupt overlord who came into possession of 10 magical arm rings (because bracelets must not sound macho enough) that allowed him to have immense power. His heart softened when he met Ying Li (played by Fala Chen), who charmed him after a sword duel that she won against him. It was love at first sight, and they got together soon after that.
Shang-Chi spent his entire life training to be a fighter and to follow in his father’s footsteps. Shang-Chi’s mother Li also gave him a special green pendant that she said he must never lose or give away. But tragedy struck when Shang-Chi was a teenager: His mother died. Wracked with griedfand despair, widower Xu Wenwu went back to his corrupt ways. There’s a part of the movie that reveals that Xu Wenwu also might have lost his mind to insanity.
When Shang-Chi was 14 years old, Xu Wenwu ordered him to complete his first “assignment” assassination. At age 15, Shang-Chi ran away from China to the United States. He ended up settling in San Francisco, where in high school he befriended a smart-alecky girl named Katy, and they’ve been best pals ever since. The movie does not show Shang-Chi’s American life during the time that he was in high school or in his 20s, but he and Katy have a few discussions about their past together.
Now in their early 30s, Shang-Chi (who changed his first name to Shaun) and Katy (played by Awkwafina) work together as parking valets at a ritzy hotel. They’re very educated and over-qualified for the job. He can speak four languages, while she has a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Katy has a mischievous and rebellious streak, since she’s the type of valet driver who will take a car out on a joy ride instead of parking it. That’s what she does when she gets handed the keys to a red BMW, which she takes to speed through traffic, with Shaun/Shang-Chi along for the ride.
Katy doesn’t know about Shang-Chi’s past until it catches up to him in one of the movie’s best action scenes. It’s when Iron Fist and some other thugs attack Shang-Chi and Katy while they’re on a moving bus. Katy is shocked to find out that her friend Shaun has superhero-level fighting skills. Later, he tells her that his real name is Shang-Chi.
But the “fight on the bus” scene kicks off the movie in a very thrilling way. The martial arts and choreography are top-notch. And there are some heart-pounding moments when Katy has the take the wheel of the bus and navigate through San Francisco’s hilly, narrow and crowded streets. It makes her daredevil joyrides as a valet look like an easygoing holiday in comparison.
Why is Shang-Chi being targeted by these goons, who seemed to come from out of nowhere? As he explains to Katy about his secret past, it means that his father must be looking for him, because the assassins took Shang-Li’s pendant. And you know what that means: Shang-Chi and Katy are going to China—Macau, to be more specific.
If non-talking monsters or aliens aren’t the main villains in a superhero movie, the talking villains better have a memorable personality. Unfortunately, as talented as Leung is as an actor, this type of formulaic, power-hungry overlord has been done in movies and TV so many times already. After watching “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” for the first time, the average viewer will be hard-pressed to remember one line of dialogue that Xu Wenwu said, although Leung certainly gives it his all in depicting a once-loving father who has since gone in an evil direction.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” does have moments of levity, mainly because of Katy’s sarcasm and the MCU re-appearance of Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley), a flamboyant British actor who was previously seen in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” It won’t be revealed here what Trevor does in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” but it’s enough to say that a cute faceless and furry creature that Trevor has with him (about the size of a dog) will be one of the most remembered aspects about “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Dr. Strange sidekick Wong (played by Benedict Wong) is another MCU character who’s in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” although Wong’s screen time is a lot less than Trevor’s. New characters to the MCU include Shang-Chi’s estranged younger sister Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang, making an impressive feature-film debut) and their aunt Ying Nan (played by Michelle Yeoh), who is the sister of Shang-Chi and Xialing’s late mother.
Before Shang-Chi and Katy go through predictable scenes of training for the big showdown battle that takes place at the end of the movie, there’s another standout fight scene that takes place on a skyscraper. In many ways, the skyscraper scene and the bus scenes are more unique and more thrilling fight than the final battle scene. This movie’s action definitely shines the most when it has martial arts between humans, rather than visual-effect-heavy battles with mythical creatures.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a big step forward for Hollywood-made superhero movies that do not have a predominantly white cast. There’s plenty to like about the movie. But as an origin story, it relies a little too much on over-used, basic tropes. Except some of the fight scenes, there wasn’t a lot of originality in how this story was structured. The good news for people unfamiliar with the MCU, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of the few MCU movies that’s a true stand-alone film that doesn’t have a lot of references to other MCU films that you would have to know about to understand these references.
However, it’s not a good sign when one of those past references from an MCU movie (Trevor) is more entertaining to watch than the main hero and the main villain in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Awkwafina might get mixed reactions in her role as Katy, since people seem to love or hate Awkafina’s off-screen personality. Liu is perfectly fine as Shang-Chi, but he doesn’t have the charisma to be in the upper echelon of beloved MCU characters. The rest of the cast is serviceable in their roles. This movie isn’t going to win any prestigious awards for any of the cast members.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also has disappointing mid-credits and end-credits scenes. People really won’t miss anything if they skip the credits. However, it’s enough to say that the mid-credits scene does show Shang-Chi, Katy, Wong and two other MCU characters. As far as escapist entertainment goes, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” delivers enough to satisfy people who are fans of superhero movies or martial arts. But people who want more magnetic personalities in action heroes might have to look elsewhere.
Marvel Studios will release “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in U.S. cinemas on September 3, 2021. A one-night-only sneak preview of the movie was screened in select IMAX cinemas in the U.S. and Canada on August 18, 2021.
Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional world of Kumandra, the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” features a predominantly Asian voice cast of characters (with some white people) representing different cultures in this fantasy world.
Culture Clash: After a terrible plague has turned her father into a stone statue, a teenage girl named Raya goes in search of a mysterious dragon and missing pieces of a magical gem in war-torn Kumandra, in order to restore peace and safety to Kumandra.
Culture Audience: “Raya and the Last Dragon” will appeal primarily to people who enjoy visually stunning, well-written animation adventures that are family-friendly and have positive themes.
Walt Disney Animation has become the premiere studio for animated movies about princesses who are more like warriors than damsels in distress. And with “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney has delivered another instant classic. The movie’s voice cast is predominantly Asian, which is a big step forward for diversity in American-made animated films. The ethnicity of the characters is not the main focus of the story, nor does it have to be, since “Raya and the Last Dragon” has an overall theme of compassion in understanding people’s differences.
Four people are credited with directing “Raya and the Last Dragon”: directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa. Fortunately, the results don’t look like “too many cooks in the kitchen,” since this well-cast and gorgeously filmed movie has a consistent tone throughout the story. The movie’s protagonist is a girl named Raya, pronounced “ry-ah” (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who explains in a voiceover intro about how her world of Kumandra has been torn apart by tribal feuding and a mystical plague called the Druun, which turns living beings into stone.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is one of those movies where it’s best not to miss the first 10 minutes, because that beginning of the film packs in a lot of necessary information in order to understand what’s going on for the rest of the movie. Raya, who appears to be about 16 or 17 for most of the story, explains that Kumandra was a harmonious world, filled with dragons that brought water and rain and peace. But about 500 years ago, the Druun (pronounced “droon”) arrived (it looks like purple mist), and turned most living beings into stone, except for one dragon.
That last dragon is a female named Sisu, pronounced “see-soo” (voiced by Awkwafina), who “concentrated all of her magic in a Dragon Gem and blasted the Druun.” This gem (which looks like a large diamond) is the only known way to fight off the Druun, so it’s become the most valuable object in Kumandra. Because of Sisu’s actions with the Dragon Gem, everyone that was turned to stone came back to life, except for the dragons. Besides the Dragon Gem, the only other way to stop the Druun is to be surrounded by a large body of water.
Sisu then became a mythical hero in Kumandra, with some people believing that Sisu might still be alive. Meanwhile, Sisu’s magical Dragon Gem became highly coveted, and various people in Kumandra began feuding to get possession of the Dragon Gem, which was secretly hidden. Borders were drawn for five different lands, and the tribes in each land have been enemies of each other for the past 500 years.
Raya describes these five lands:
Tail, “a sweltering desert of sneaky mercenaries who fight dirty.” The Tail tribe wears a lot of yellow.
Talon, “a floating market with fast deals and fighters with even faster hands.” The Talon tribe wears a lot of purple.
Spine, “a frigid bamboo forest guarded by large warriors and their giant axes.” The Spine tribe wears a lot of green.
Fang, “our fiercest enemy, a nation protected by angry assassins and even angrier cats.” The Fang tribe wears a lot of off-white.
Heart, the land where Raya and her father Benja live, is the most neutral and prosperous of the five lands. The Heart tribe doesn’t really have a color-coordinated way of dressing.
The story continues with a flashback of when Raya was about 10 or 11 years old. Her widower father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), who is the chief of Heart, has been the secret guardian of the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a remote part of a cave. Raya knows this secret, and she passes her father’s physical test to see if she would be able to reach the Dragon Gem if necessary.
Benja has a bold plan to reunite all the feuding tribes of Kumandra. He invites the people of Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang to Heart. And he gives a speech asking everyone to try to get along with each other. His speech is met with a lot of ridicule, until Raya and Benja mention all the free food that’s available at the gathering. Some of the other tribes are scarce on resources, such as food.
Raya makes eye contact in the crowd with a girl from Fang who’s about the same age as she is. They smile at each other, as an indication that they’re open to becoming friends. Raya steps into the crowd and begins talking to the girl. The other girl is Fang’s princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), who is the daughter of Fang’s calm and calculating leader Virana (voiced by Sandra Oh).
The other tribes see how Raya and Namaari have started to amicably interact with each other, so they gather in an area that’s set up to look like Kumandra’s version of a family-friendly cocktail party. Raya and Namaari have an instant friendship connection, when they find out that they are both superfans of Sisu. The two girls also found out other things that they have in common are that they both want to be warriors and they both have single parents who tell terrible jokes.
Namaari has a Sisu necklace that Raya admires, and Raya is flattered and surprised when Namaari gives the necklace to Raya. This act of generosity prompts Raya to to impulsively show Namaari the secret location where the Dragon Gem is kept. However, Raya is in for a betrayal and a rude awakening, when Namaari sends a signal to the people in her tribe that she’s found the Dragon Gem.
Other members of the Fang tribe, including Namaari’s mother Virana, rush inside the cave and begin to try to get the gem. Meanwhile, members of the Tail, Talon and Spine tribes have followed them inside the cave to see what all the fuss is about. And when they all see the Dragon Gem, all hell breaks loose.
Benja and Raya bravely try to prevent the Dragon Gem from being taken, but Raya and Benja are outnumbered. People begin fighting to take possession of the gem, which ends up dropping on the ground and shattering into five pieces. The Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang tribes each take one piece and scatter back to their lands, while a fifth piece is left behind at Heart.
The shattering of the Dragon Gem causes the Druun to come back with a vengeance, so there are many people in all tribes who get turned into stone. One of them is Benja, who valiantly throws Raya off a bridge to save her from being in the Druun’s path. She falls into the water (which is protection from the Druun), and she is able to survive.
The story then fast-forwards to six years later. Raya is now a lonely teenage orphan who’s been wandering through the now-devastated Kumandra, on a quest to find all of the pieces of the Dragon Gem to put them back together. Accompanying Raya on this quest is a creature called Tuk Tuk, which is part pill bug and part pug. Tuk Tuk, which is Raya’s closest companion, has grown considerably since her childhood, from being small enough to fit in the palm of her hand to currently being large enough to transport her like a giant snail.
Raya is grieving over the loss of her father, and she’s consumed with bitterness over how she was betrayed by Namaari. Throughout the movie, it’s repeated how this betrayal has caused Raya to not trust anyone. And she wants to get revenge on Namaari and the Fang tribe the most.
Because being near a large body of water is a form of protection against the Druun, Raya has been seeking out all the rivers in Kumandra. When she gets to the last river, Raya calls out to the spirit of Sisu to help her. Just then, Sisu appears, to Raya’s shock. Sisu then transforms herself into a human, as a teenager with multicolored hair.
Raya is awestruck but she doesn’t lose focus on her mission. She tells Sisu about her plan to find all the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Sisu agrees to help her and mentions that her best magical ability is that she’s a “really strong swimmer.”
And so, Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk go on this adventure that’s fraught with danger but also filled with wonder and hope. Along the way, they meet some memorable characters. One of them is Boun (played by Izaac Wang), pronounced “boon,” a wisecracking 10 year-old boy who’s the captain of his own rickety-looking wooden ship. He calls himself Captain Boun, and he invites Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk to ride on the ship to wherever they need to go.
During this journey they also encounter a giant named Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong); Talon’s chief Dang Hai (played by Sung Kang); and Dang Hu (voiced by Lucille Soong), an elderly guide. For the “cute and cuddly factor” that’s a staple of Disney animated movies, there are some innocent-looking characters that commit some not-so-innocent acts: Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) is a toddler with a habit of stealing items (and she steals lots of scenes too), and she hangs out with three Ongis, which are con-artist creatures that are part monkey, part catfish. And, of course, Namaari shows up again and finds out what Raya is planning to do.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” has overtones about world peace without being too preachy about it. It’s also a story about the capacity to forgive and how difficult it can be to overcome grudges when revenge for death, as well as hatred of a certain group of people, have become ingrained in someone’s soul or someone’s culture. A lot of these messages are wrapped up in the vibrant adventure aspect of the story, but these themes are constant throughout the entire film.
The movie has some commentary about hero worship and the dangers of exalting others to a degree that’s not always healthy or realistic. Sisu reveals some secrets about herself that give a different perspective on her mythical hero status. Awkwafina is a personality that people either seem to love or hate, but her raspy-voiced portrayal of Sisu suits the character well, considering that this dragon has lived for centuries.
Sisu is older and wiser than Raya, and offers some advice about forgiveness that Raya thinks is too naïve. This difference of opinion leads to some mild conflicts between Raya and Sisu, but they remain united in their goal to find the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Tran’s portrayal of Raya is relatable and engaging, while Chan also shines in her role as Raya’s enemy Namaari, whose loyalty to her Fang tribe is her greatest motivation and her greatest blind spot.
One of the main themes of Disney princess movies is how girls who seem ordinary can find something extraordinary in themselves during their journeys of self-discovery and while they learn some of life’s biggest lessons. “Raya and the Dragon” falls right in line with this theme. And because this is a Disney animated film, the visuals and the story are top-notch.
Is it a completely perfect movie? No. One of the things that isn’t adequately explained is how Raya and her father Benja seem to be the only people in Heart who are shown in the movie. There’s no real sense of what type of community Raya grew up in and what type of community she would go back to if she returned to Heart. It would have been a little better if the movie showed more of this social context in Heart, instead of making it look like Raya and Benja were the only people who mattered in Heart.
And the way the story is structured, viewers really do need to be paying full attention during the first 10 minutes, or else they’ll miss the informative descriptions of the different lands. (However, for very young kids or people who don’t care about world building, these descriptions won’t matter as much as the adventure story.) Sometimes when a movie has a lot of voice narration in the beginning to explain the plot, it doesn’t work. But fortunately, it works for “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Any of the movie’s minor flaws are far outweighed by this captivating story that is sure to inspire repeat viewings.
Walt Disney Animation Studios released “Raya and the Last Dragon” in U.S. cinemas and for a premium additional price on Disney+ on March 5, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Victorian-era England, the comedy/drama “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has a racially diverse cast (Asian, white and black) portraying the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: An upwardly mobile young man named David Copperfield reflects on his life, which includes a rough childhood and discrimination over his social class.
Culture Audience: “The Personal History of David Copperfield will appeal primarily to fans of the Charles Dickens book, on which the movie is based, as well to people who like modern twists on classic stories.
Writer/director Armando Iannucci brings his brand of sly and witty humor to his movie adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (based on Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel “David Copperfield”) and updates the film to have a multiracial cast in a way that is neither self-congratulatory nor self-conscious. The essence of the story, which is set in Victorian-era England, remains the same in the movie as it is in the book. But this unusual and inspired casting is one of the film’s more modern takes on the “David Copperfield” story. Let’s face it: Most filmmakers casting a movie version of “David Copperfield” would follow the predictable convention and stick to casting only white people in the main roles to reflect how the characters are described in the novel.
In “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” the title character (played by Dev Patel in the movie) looks back on his life and describes how he felt during crucial points in his journey from childhood to adulthood. That flashback concept remains intact in the movie, without an over-reliance on voiceover narration. Instead, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has fun playing with time and space, by having the adult David appearing in the flashback scenes with the child version of David (played by Jairaj Varsani), as if the adult David has gone back in time and can see his younger self.
People who’ve read the book already know how the story is going to end. But for anyone unfamiliar with the book, the movie creates a world that is both whimsical and bleak, depending on which part of David’s life that viewers are experiencing through his memories. Some of the characters border on parody, but that’s because the movie is meant to be a snappy satire on the rigid social class system that causes much of David’s worst misery throughout his life.
The movie portrays David’s dysfunctional childhood, in which he bounces from one home to another, and he experiences many insecurities over his identity and social acceptance. David was born into a family that didn’t fully accept him as a child. This rejection is demonstrated in the movie’s opening scene that shows his mother Clara (played by Morfydd Clark) giving birth to him in Blunderstone, Suffolk, and her husband’s domineering, unmarried sister Betsey Trotwood (played by Tilda Swinton) leaving in an angry huff when she finds out that the baby is a boy, not a girl. In an Oedipal twist in this movie’s casting, actress Clark, who plays David’s mother Clara, also plays someone who becomes one of David’s love interests when he’s an adult: ditsy Dora Spendlow, who treats her Maltese dog like an inseparable child.
David’s mother Clara becomes a widow when he’s still a baby, which is a slight departure from the book, when Clara became a widow before David was born. Even though Clara has help from an optimistic maid named Clara Peggotty, also known as Peggotty (played by Daisy May Cooper), David’s mother wants a more stable home for her child (whom she calls Davy), so she sends him away more than once to live with another family.
The first time he’s sent away, it’s to live in Yarmouth with Peggotty’s brother Daniel Pegotty (played by Paul Whitehouse), a fisherman who lives in an upside-down boat parked on the sand. Daniel lives with three other people: two teenage orphans named Ham (played by Anthony Welsh) and Emily (played by Aimée Kelly) and an elderly woman named Mrs. Gummidge (played by Rosaleen Linehan). Ham and Emily become fast friends with David. It’s one of the happiest times in David’s childhood, as he finds complete acceptance in this family, which calls him Master Copperfield.
When his mother sends for David to come back to live with her, he finds out that his mother has married a cruel tyrant named Edward Murdstone (played by Darren Boyd), who has an equally horrible sister named Jane Murdstone (played Gwendoline Christie), and the siblings both treat young David as if he’s a wretched nuisance. Jane is so hateful toward David that she calls him “it,” while Edward get physically abusive if David doesn’t obey his orders.
During an incident in which Edward begins to beat up David because David couldn’t show that he had completed his education lessons, David bites Edward’s hand and almost gets away from him. David mother’s Clara just passively does nothing but cry while her son is being beaten. Soon after this incident, David is, in his words, “banished to London,” where he is forced to work in a wine bottling factory that is partially owned by the Murdstone family.
David finds out that his boss knows about the abuse incident in which David bit Edward Murdstone’s hand in self-defense, because when David defies his boss’ orders, David is forced to wear a sign on the job that says, “He bites.” It’s another way that David is humiliated and made to feel like an outsider. David is also given a different first name at almost every place he lives, which also adds to his insecurities over his identity and sense of not really belonging anywhere.
A series of incidents lead David to some more homes until he reaches adulthood. He lives for a period of time with debt-ridden married father Mr. Wilkins Micawber (played by Peter Capaldi), who rescues David from a street altercation. Estranged aunt Betsey Trotwood then lets David live with her, on the condition that David change his first name to Trotwood. David is also sent to live in a boarding school, where he meets James Steerforth (played by Aneurin Barnard), a popular and privileged older student who insists on calling David the nickname Daisy. It’s an obvious way for Steerforth to show his dominance and emasculate David, who greatly admires Steerforth and wants to be accepted into Steerforth’s clique.
While living with his aunt Betsey, David meets some other people who have a major impact on his life. They include the eccentric Mr. Dick (played by Hugh Laurie), who has deep admiration for Betsey; an alcoholic lawyer named Mr. Wickfield (played by Benedict Wong); Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes (played by Rosalind Eleazar), who becomes a close friend/adviser to David; Uriah Heep (played by Ben Whishaw), Mr. Wickfield’s nervous-tempered clerk; and the aforementioned Dora Spendlow, whom David becomes infatuated with immediately upon meeting her.
After being treated as an inconvenience for most of his childhood, David starts to gain confidence and a sense of his true self. He develops an unexpected friendship with Mr. Dick, who seems like an antisocial grouch (and who is probably mentally ill, since Mr. Dick hears voices no one else can hear) until David makes a kite and he flies the kite with Mr. Dick. This carefree activity lifts Mr. Dick’s spirits and he begins to trust and open up to David.
And as David becomes more educated at the boarding school, his job prospects improve. He decides to become a proctor because Dora’s father is a proctor. David becomes so enamored with Dora that all he can think about is eventually marrying her. There’s an amusing montage in the movie demonstrating David’s amorous obsession for Dora, by showing that he imagines seeing Dora in the faces of several people in his life.
Although “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is nearly two hours long (116 minutes, to be exact), the movie has a brisk and energetic pace that Iannucci is known for, as seen in his previous films 2009’s “In the Loop” and 2017’s “The Death of Stalin.” Characters are often quirky and/or sarcastic, with Swinton (as Betsey Trotwood) and Laurie (as Mr. Dick), standing out as the kookiest personalities of the bunch. Their eccentric nature is ironic because Betsey and Mr. Dick are not the more sympathetic characters, but they are the ones who set David on a path to having a stable home life. Patel and Whishaw also do quite well in their respective roles, as their personalities go through a metamorphosis.
The movie’s production design by Cristina Casali and the cinematography by Zac Nicholson wonderfully bring to life David’s memories that are a reflection of his emotions and maturity level at the time of his memories. The brightly colored Boat of Peggotty house from his childhood is shown as almost like a fantasy playhouse on the inside. The bottle factory is dark and oppressive. And the scenery around David becomes warmer and more sophisticated as he starts to grow up and becomes more educated, independent and self-assured.
On the surface, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” doesn’t seem to have much appeal to people who have no interest in seeing a movie that takes place in 1800s England. However, much of the themes and social commentary in the story remain relevant to modern audiences. And if people want to see a witty version of a Dickens classic in a movie that doesn’t follow all the predictable ways of telling the story, then “The Personal History of David Copperfield” delivers this experience in a frequently amusing way.
Searchlight Pictures released “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in January 2020.