With Armando Iannucci's second stand-alone film being an adaptation of David Copperfield, it may seem that the writer/director is now leaning towards the mainstream. But the richness and depth of Dickens' autobiographical masterpiece gives plenty of material for the satirist to get his teeth into. His first stand-alone film was "The Death of Stalin" was a biting satire and many were impressed by its film score composed by Christopher Willis in a style suggesting the works of Shostakovich, a stylistic choice very much suited to the film's topic. So it was pleasing to hear that Willis would again be working with Iannucci to score "The Personal History of David Copperfield", and further interest was sparked when it became clear that the composer's preparations would again involve research into the musical styles of a range of classical composers.
In the case of "The Personal History of David Copperfield" that research focused on the styles of British composers, since Armando Iannucci had indicated that he wanted the film to celebrate all things British. Willis felt strongly that this should also apply to the music, and having studied historical musicology at PhD level this path must have seemed natural approach. Willis is now based in LA but having grown up and studied in the UK, the topic of British composers would be familiar and certainly a way to reconnect with his his roots. I'm not an expert in this genre so can't identify specific influences with any accuracy but the music certainly sounds very English, with plenty of major keys and some thick white-note harmonies. But it's not all sweet English Country Gardens, there are shades of Vaughan Williams in both jovial and angry mode, and there is considerable stylistic variety in the score, covering perhaps a century or more of classical periods from early romantic through to 20th century music. You could even say that the rich diversity of the film's musical expression is Dickensian!
At the time of writing the film hasn't opened yet, but the track listing suggests a top and tail of Copperfield's career as a writer. "My Own Story" starts with some busy strings (on repeated notes and runs) joined by woodwind and brass. A distinct 4-note motif emerges from the texture while brass figures cut through it, and the track ends with an enigmatic harp. The much calmer "Baby Davy" (presumably referring to a young Copperfield) is introduced with widely spaced notes on harp and piano, before we hear flowing figures on woodwind and strings. "Yarmouth" grows on strings and brass, before the return of the busy figures and the 4-note motif, and the Brittenesque climax on high strings inevitably shifts our thoughts towards the seaside with gentle waves and fluttering seagulls. The following handful of tracks seem episodic in nature like the serialised release of the original source material, including some darker tracks and the Stravinskian "The Bottling Factory". However these episodes are just interesting diversions from Willis' overall plan. "A Corker of a Corker" returns to the busy strings of the opening with its associated brass figures and 4-note motif, and this material from the opening tracks over the next few tracks.
"Notes and Impressions" introduces a soaring theme which is then picked up on solo violin in "A Blissful Summer", and then "First Day at School" is Elgarian in feel with its initially tentative theme accommpanied by low pizzicato strings before the soaring theme returns on solo flute and a tinkling piano adds to the more optimistic tone and continues into "Mr. Dick and the Kite". After some train sounds in "Tall Tales" Willis' most dischordant string material is reserved for "Uriah Heep" but this eerie mood doesn't last long. "Leaving Day" returns to English roots with a classical almost baroque touch. Some solo strings suggest a string quartet within the orchestra and a more homely theme becomes apparent. Though there are further episodes and diversions, from here onwards recurrences of the main and subsidiary themes seem to impart a noticeable momentum to the whole score, as though it now knows where it is heading. The repeated insistence of the "busy string" figures feels like a "deconstruction" approach, almost like granular synthesis applied on an orchestral scale.
Baroque touches aside, the musical approach is firmly neo-classical in outlook, which suits the filmic intentions of being a modern take on the Dickens story. Ultimately whether the Britishness of the score is perceived consciously is beside the point. It is simply a wonderful example of orchestral scoring supporting the movie on a number of levels. In summary Willis has concocted a sumptuous score for Iannucci's take on the novel. Its splendidly neoclassical music pays homage to the styles of a range of British composers, while also celebrating the richness of Dickens' novel. Despite the uncertain state of Brexit Britain, this score defines a Britain full of optimism. Given the richness of the score, this is certainly a must-see film and I also look forward to the next collaboration between Iannucci and Willis. The film will be hitting cinemas soon, and is up for several BAFTAs next month among other awards.