The Personal History of David Copperfield, 2019.
Directed by Armando Iannucci.
Starring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Aneurin Barnard, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Gwendoline Christie, Paul Whitehouse, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong, Darren Boyd, Anthony Welsh, Aimee Kelly, Jairaj Varsani and Nikki Amuka-Bird.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Charles Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield follows its narrator hero through the highs and lows of his life in Victorian England.
From the creative mind of Armando Iannucci, and the pen of Dickens (with Simon Blackwell’s able assistance), comes The Personal History of David Copperfield, a fresh, imaginative and – dare I say it? – quite radical take on one of Charles Dickens’ biggest works.
The film’s undeniable triumph comes, plainly, from making Charles Dickens entertaining and accessible for all, at any age, after decades of forced study may have turned people off the writer. As a film about one man’s life, it makes perfect sense that David Copperfield’s younger years should explore the whimsy and adventure of childhood as much as his later years chart the unforgiving turbulence of a man unlucky in his fortune in Victorian England.
The Personal History of David Copperfield uses Dickens’ storytelling structure so well, with Copperfield (Dev Patel) as the narrator of his own tale. Characters can be summoned when he writes about them, noting their compelling quirks, for better or worse; he can also place himself and others right in the thick of his history when he’s retelling it. Sometimes Copperfield interrupts his own narrative, with a giant hand that disrupts the paper playset of what was just Peggotty’s (a lovely Daisy May Cooper) real boat house, or a horse and carriage that propels him onward to his ‘education’ in London. These imaginative transitions are a real treat.
From domineering, leeching step-family members to kindly housekeepers and several, rather batty, friends and relations, a wide range of the classic Dickens character tropes are present and correct in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Dev Patel is commendable in the central role, often allowing the larger-than-life characters to take centre stage. This is not to discredit him at all – in this way he works best as the writer Copperfield, observing and listening to those who inspire his words later on. He also has an interesting, quicksilver quality, where the characters he is with bring out his different sides. For example, he is the perfect foil to the confused Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), who inspires Copperfield’s kind heart, and the superior Steerforth (the inscrutable Aneurin Barnard), with whom he gives into the baser privileges he can enjoy as a gentleman. There’s also a telling battle of identity going on, as he plays along with everyone’s peculiar habit of renaming him.
The rest of the cast’s performances are also exceptional. Absurdities are carefully highlighted, and the timing (and wit) of so many lines allows each situation to flourish. Iannucci and his reputation have assembled an array of the finest British acting talent – it says something when Anna Maxwell Martin and Gwendoline Christie are happy to take on small roles. Tilda Swinton’s a hoot from the outset as the robust Aunt Betsey Trotwood, described as “kindly” but perfectly happy to kick people off donkeys who are trespassing in her meadow. Quite. It’s also wonderful to see Ben Wishaw take on the role of the obsequious and sneaky Uriah Heep, one of Dickens’ most infamous villains. His switch from smarmy to snide is perfectly judged, underscoring the danger of a previously pitiful character. Hugh Laurie is a true delight as Mr Dick, expertly bringing shadow as well as light to a pleasant but troubled man, struggling with his mental health. Another Peter Capaldi collaboration with Iannucci sees the actor squeezing every last drop out of the part of Mr Micawber, bringing his own charm to a man constantly on the make (and the lam).
The stylistic elements of the film are also excellent, with stirring music and vibrant costumes and settings completing the package. Despite gorgeous colour throughout, the film is carefully designed to show Victorian England off at its best and worst, from treasures to squalor.
As with the writer’s original works though, The Personal History of David Copperfield starts and ends with its characters, who are truly alive and authentic. Dickens’ propensity towards writing larger-than-life characters is something that truly lends itself to the screen, and presents delicious work for the actors. Despite almost everyone having telling – often ridiculous – flaws, the comedy is finely balanced with pathos throughout. The laughs wouldn’t be as long without the finely tuned context of misery waiting around every corner. Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and Mr Micawber, in particular, could easily be unsympathetic, almost malicious figures, but for Wong and Capaldi’s sterling performances. Despite almost everyone’s failings of character, the overall feeling of the film is one of redemption and forgiveness (except when it comes to Uriah Heep, naturally). There’s also a winning sense of whimsy – not too much – throughout, aiding the deft, light touch with Dickens’ story.
And when wouldn’t you enjoy scenes where people communicate in the voice of a small lapdog?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★