JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Personal History of David Copperfield | The White Tiger | Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Directors: Armando Iannucci, Ramin Bahrani, George Wolfe) - January 18, 2021
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The Personal History of David Copperfield | The White Tiger | Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

4.5 4.5

A fanciful history, a cautionary tale and the early blues

The Personal History of David Copperfield
2020 119 minutes
Armando Iannucci
Four and one half stars

“From writing?”

Based on the classic novel of Charles Dickens, director Iannucci (along with co-writer Simon Blackwell) have fashioned a wonderfully colour-blind retelling of the life and tumultuous times of David Copperfield. Ranveer Jaiswal is appropriately cherubic as young David, then (following an editing triumph in the sweatshop bottling company of his evil step-father, Darren Boyd doing the honours with devilish style), Dev Patel steps onto the stage (having briefly introduced the proceedings) and delivers one of his best characterizations ever (cross-reference below).

Adroitly aided and abetted by the likes of Tilda Swinton (cross-references below) as Aunt Betsy Trotwood—replete with a donkey-hating fetish, Hugh Laurie as the Charles I obsessed Mr. Dick (thank goodness for kite therapy) and the simmering evil (due to class distinction—thank goodness we’ve none of that today) from Ben Whishaw as the vindictive Uriah Heep.

The costuming (Suzie Harman, Robert Worley), music (Christopher Willis) and cinematography (Zac Nicholson) are all at one with the artistic intent.

Those who have savoured the original novel will appreciate Iannucci’s fanciful take; newcomers ought to snap up their own copy then “compare and contrast”. JWR


The White Tiger
2020, 125 minutes
Ramin Bahrani
Four stars

Blind obedience unrepentantly unmasked

How entirely, ironically coincidental to view this tale of poverty versus riches on the very day that the Worst President Ever was rightfully impeached for the second time.

Bahrani (last seen in these pages with Goodbye Solocross-reference below) has taken Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning novel and brought it to the big screen with a fine cast and excellent production values. Described in Wikipedia as a “darkly humorous perspective of India’s class struggle in a globalized world”—like the state of unruly affairs in the United States since November 3, 2020, I found nothing at all to smile, much less laugh about.

The premise is straightforward enough. Impoverished youth, Balram (Adarsh Gourav employs his good looks, ease of delivery and singer-songwriter background, adding much to the ebb and flow of the wide-ranging part), opts to abandon his paltry tea shop family servitude, learn to drive, then latch on to a master with cash, style and connections. He soon finds those attributes in coal magnate Ashok (appropriately done up by Rajkummar Rao and his deliciously named wife, Pinky Madam—Priyanka Chopra). In order to become driver No. 1 of two, Balram outs his senior colleague as a Muslim. All’s fair in work and religion.

But everything heads south when an inebriated Pinky apparently kills an innocent pedestrian. What to do if they are caught? (No thought of remaining at the scene…) The answer? Have servant Balram confess to the crime, if needs be. Just that act brings India much closer to Trump’s America: blind obedience can have deadly, disturbing effects.

Also in that vein, Ashok’s frequent, necessary bribes and sucking up to government officials rings true with many of the like-minded shenanigans on Pennsylvania Avenue since 2016 (just exchange “government officials” for personal lawyers, unwitting base and foreign enablers).

Seeing first-hand how the “real” world works, Balram opts to carve up (literally: a broken “upscale” liquor bottle being the weapon of choice—metaphors everywhere) his slice of the pie, put his boss out of his misery, pay himself well with purloined money as recompense, then strike out on his own as yet another unscrupulous “businessman” who most assuredly gets away with murder (then dismissing the revenge deaths of his kin with the turn of a newspaper page).

“Rise above” takes on an ugly meaning by journey’s end. Then, for the second time in less than a week (cross-reference below) Balram stares us down with a look that says, “Can anyone blame me?” JWR


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
2020, 94 minutes
George Wolfe
Three and one half stars

The man with a horn strikes out

At a Chicago recording session in 1927, Ma Rainey (aka Mother of the Blues to many—played loud and large by Viola Davis), the music takes a back seat to the personalities: the diva fretting for her Coca-Cola; the hotshot trumpeter (the too-soon late Chadwick Boseman as Levee—effusing arrogance and talent with each buzz of his talented lips) and the besieged extra-white manager (Jeremy Shamos is convincing as the go-between—placating She Who Must Be Obeyed and the record Czar with the cash and connections).

Not surprisingly, it is the music that scores the most points (ranging from original, long-ago tracks to the magical orchestrations/interventions courtesy of Branford Marsalis). The slight plot (based on the stage play by August Wilson—imaginatively interpreted thanks to first-time screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson), never truly coalesces. The band’s repartee is mostly believable, the stuttering “friend” of Ma (Dusan Brown) adds a wee bit of drama, but the final scenes—replete with a wayward knife and “no surprise here” song stealing, never ring as true as the charts.

Nonetheless, Boseman’s swan song (succumbing to cancer during post production), is still worth a look and especially a listen to all of those who savour the blues and its early practitioners. JWR

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