Film review by Jason Day and Win Hughes of The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), director Armando Iannucci’s take on the Charles Dickens classic. Starring Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton.
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A curious and comical fate awaits young David Copperfield who, because his father dies before he was born, is left a ward at the mercy of the cruel adults around him.
I was born.First chapter title of The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Dickens, C (1849-1850).
A simple opening for a novel, but that’s the famously wordy Dickens for you – a master of under and over statement.
His David Copperfield (originaslly serialed 1849-50) is completely loopy fun and a real page turner. And it needs to be because there are lot of them to turn (624 in the first edition).
Cramming the action in your standard Dickens epic into the standard duration of a movie (two hours) is a double-edged sword for screenwriters.
On the one hand it should be a doddle, because of Dickens’ cinematic writing (detailed, evocative descriptions; psychologically nuanced characters; script-ready dialogue) lends itself well to silver screen treatment.
On the other, there’s so much of it and it’s all brilliant and relevant to the story, what do you keep in and what do you sacrifice?
Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell have form writing sly comic skits with pop and pep. After all, they penned the sharp satirical fare on the small screen (they are the duo behind The Thick of It and Veep) so you’d expect their iconoclastic view of politics turned to a beloved Victorian classic would take a few liberties.
And liberties they have taken and thank God, because it’s an approach that works in the book’s favour.
The first thing you’ll notice is the casting. An Asian actor, the magical, mercurial Dev Patel takes the lead role usually played by white actors.
But from the main performers right down to the bit parts and extras, there is perfect parity and equality of performers based on their racial and ethnic background.
Usually I have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that could ‘ruin’ the verisimilitude of period dramas, anything that appears – in my eyes at least – to be a tokenistic spin on the genre.
No such worries with this film because the whole cast are splendid and the blurring of traditional casting preferences feels revelatory.
David’s beautiful white mother has a beautiful Asian child. Strident Steerforth is Anglo-Saxon and has an equally strident black mother.
Our eyes are opened to the richness of life and experience, much as the newborn David’s hazy view of his loving mother and Peggotty assumes clarity and focus.
Casting Patel in the lead also works because with his poetic, positive and hopeful face and demeanour, he just makes the best David Copperfield. He’s a soulful and perpetually dreamy actor, scribbling down any saying or bon mot that he hears, filing these Victorian Post-Its in a wooden box and encouraging others to contribute theirs. “Is that one of yous?” Peggotty says, as the two of them wax lyrical about Jane Murdstone’s wax-like face.
It’s difficult to single out performers from this fine roll-call of excellence, but I have tip my hat toward a few.
Swinton’s mad-faced, anti-Equus asinus Betsy Trotwood is the stand out support turn as she kicks riders from stop the donkey they dare to ride over her meadow, later slamming one unlucky young man’s face into the sign that clearly warned him against such an action.
The other great turn is Ben Wishaw as a gloriously greasy, opportunistic, perpetually humble Uriah Heep.
Looking at the script, again you expect and get a different stab at the source material from the dynamic duo.
The framing device – with Copperfield narrating his autobiography (the book is written as a first person narrative) is fundamentally the right approach.
In the book, David attempts to become a writer and eventually succeeds with his life story. In real life, Dickens gave public readings of his work, so this has a comfortable, ‘full circle’ feel.
Throughout the film, the fourth – and a few more – walls are broken. David’s hand bursts through the film to grab at something
David also crops up as an omnipresent narrator at key moments throughout the film, giving piquant insights about what we observe.
All very apt and clever…so why am I still not 100% happy with the script?
Iannucci’s rushed, crazed, spasmodic pacing creates a frenetic, fizzy energy, fully reflective of the barmy narrative and even barmier people young Copperfield meets along his comical odyssey through the vicissitudes of Victoriana.
But the downside is that by hurtling through the choice cuts of Dickens’ mighty tome he has cherry-picked for the script, there is a lack of focus on key elements in the story.
For instance, Betsy Trotwood is vehemently anti-male children. When David turns up at her house, her initial rejection of him based on his sex is given a flippant lip service.
Within the blink of an eye after seeing his dirty form, she picks him up and takes him into her pristine, ordered home. No questions about whether he is the boy she rejected decades before, just swift and unequivocal acceptance. This didn’t cut the mustard with me.
Also, we are told that Mr Micawber has been a key influence on David’s development. But there’s little closeness when they are together on screen. They interact, yes, but you get the impression Micawber is merely a brightly attired stop on David’s journey. He’s diverting – for a bit – when Iannucci’s camera deigns to stop long enough to let him start to entertain us.
Am I just pish-pishing here? Maybe. It;s always good to have a movie that flits along at a fair lick, especially when you attend a late night screening.
One other thing that is a joy are the closing credits. Those ‘Victorian Post-Its’ with doodles of the characters, fly around the screen. A lovely conclusion.
But, that is my viewpoint. Don’t just take my words for it, as pals Win and Emily have their own opinions to chip in…
I thought the way it was framed worked perfectly. the film was cast well and the plot moved along at a pace. I forgot I was watching a bunch of famous people playing the characters and just got taken along with the story. Brilliant film making.Win Hughes reviews!
For more, see the official webpage.
Cast & credits
Director: Armando Iannucci. 1 hr 59 mins/119 mins. Film 4/FilmNation Entertainment. (PG).
Producers: Armando Iannucci, Kevin Loader.
Writers: Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci.
Camera: Zac Nicholson.
Music: Christopher Willis.
Sets: Cristina Casali.
Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Ben Wishaw, Aneurin Barnard, Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie, Morfydd Clark, Bronagh Gallagher, Anna Maxwell Martin, Jairaj Varsani, Paul Whitehouse, Benedict Wong, Nikki Amuka-Bird.