In Armando Iannucci’s screen adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield, just launched at the Toronto International Film Festival, there are a host of Dickensian characters who provide a delicious batch of cameos for various British acting talents. One of them is the peculiarly frustrated Mr. Dick, who can never manage to finish writing his memoirs because thoughts of King Charles I on the eve of his execution keep interrupting him. Actor Hugh Laurie makes the man’s erratic energy and occasional vacancy amusing, but also poignant – in Charles Dickens’s era, Mr. Dick was a sad eccentric; in Iannucci and Laurie’s, he is clearly suffering from mental illness.
Still, madness and genius lie side-by-side, to this day. Mr. Dick is provided some relief, if not a cure, by flying a kite pasted together from scraps of paper carrying his errant thoughts, a practice encouraged, particularly in this contemporary adaptation, by David Copperfield himself. Dev Patel’s cheerful version of the title character even invents the idea of the kite and kindly empathizes with the experience of hearing voices in one’s head. After all, Copperfield is a budding writer who also scribbles on scraps of paper, trying out bits of dialogue and metaphor.
In Dickens’ original, David Copperfield’s calling as a writer is a quiet note that emerges late in a novel considered the author’s most autobiographical. In his update, Iannucci makes the point more emphatically with all those pieces of paper appearing on screen – here is a portrait of the artist as a young man.
Or as a young woman. This year’s festival is full of films of a confessional nature that chart an artist’s development, including the aptly named How to Build a Girl. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by the British newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran, it tells how a 16-year-old working-class Midlands nerd named Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) reinvents herself as the vicious London rock critic Dolly Wilde. This time, the writing is not scribbled on paper but – a bit anachronistically, considering the setting is the 1990s – pounded out on a small typewriter. Of course, pounding at those keys, no matter how hard, is not very cinematic nor dramatic: What makes How to Build a Girl an exuberantly comic movie (in the hands of director Coky Giedroyc) is the frumpy Johanna’s sudden transformation into a creature dressed in a sequined tutu, black tailcoat and top hat perched over voluminous curls newly dyed magenta.
In this coming-of-age story, Johanna inevitably learns that it’s better to be yourself than somebody else, but as is often the case, the film’s crisis is more revealing than its solution. Johanna’s initiation as a writer involves donning a guise; she adopts a foreign voice just as David Copperfield’s scribbled papers mimic the accents and expressions of the colourful figures around him.
If the authorial voice is possibly an act of mimicry or deception, it can also be one that lies painfully close to personal truth. What else to make of Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, also at the festival, a film by a famous but aging Spanish film director about a famous but aging Spanish film director? In interviews, Almodovar has been frank about the autobiographical nature of the project, which was shot on a set that reproduced the director’s Madrid apartment, right down to the art hanging on the walls.
The protagonist, played by Antonio Banderas, is one Salvador Mallo, a preeminent Spanish director whose physical ailments are numerous and artistic ideas scarce. He breaks through his creative block when a series of encounters with figures from his past triggers both memories and forgiveness. Finally, the auteur starts writing … presumably the script for the film we are now watching. Pain and Glory is so meta, it can become difficult to summarize all the interwoven references to art and to life, but the point is that cinematic storytelling is a lifeblood to Salvador – or to Almodovar.
Sometimes the only voice an artist hears in his head is his own.
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