FILM REVIEW: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Writer: Charles Dickens

Adaptor:  Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci

Director: Armando Iannucci

Even before entering the cinema, it is apparent that the latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is going to be unconventional. As the poster makes clear, Dev Patel, who is London-born but of Indian descent, plays the title role. Director Armando Iannucci, who co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Blackwell takes the title literally: this is a personal history told by Copperfield and, like all recollections, subject to the occasional inaccuracy or a degree of revisionism. Thus, the story features children who are of a notably different race from their parents and, although David matures into Dev Patel, when he re-encounters characters from his childhood they have not aged or changed their clothes. Indeed, at one point a character goes so far as to acknowledge they are not contributing to a scene and asks to be written out.

Characters in Dickens’s novels were often larger than life but the somewhat fairy tale atmosphere of the movie is likely to infuriate purists as much, if not more, than the casting. Charles Dickens was a social reformer and did not hesitate to use his stories to raise the social awareness of his readers. Although Iannucci does not shy away from depicting poverty, the mood is always bright and cheerful – there is no squalor and it never seems to rain. There is a price to pay for this approach as much of the gravity of the novel, and the adversity that might have helped Copperfield develop is lacking. Copperfield’s first marriage, to an immature character who meets an early death, is omitted from the movie. Iannucci is so averse to anything that does not have a comedic element we never find out the fate of Uriah Heep- the villain of the movie.

There is a sense of Iannucci and Blackwell challenging themselves by refusing to pander to the expectations of the audience and insisting their adaptation be judged on its own merits. Well-known, audience-pleasing, phrases – such as Mr. Macawber’s formula for securing either happiness or misery – are missing.

Iannucci clearly adores the eccentric characters in the novel and delights in bringing them to the screen in their full glory. Such an approach requires a very strong cast to ensure the characters do not descend into grotesques and fortunately, there is not a weak link in the chain. Peter Capaldi brings a degree of cynicism to Mr. Macawber so that, rather than an incurable optimist, the character, although never malicious, is capable of deception. Ben Whishaw is a superb villain; his Uriah Heep is, on the surface, creepy and unpleasant and Whishaw excels at drawing out the sinister underlying malevolence of the character.

Dev Patel portrays David Copperfield (and by extension Charles Dickens) as an outsider but not a lonely one. Patel shows Dickens drawing his vast range of characters from life; he is an observer compulsively recording those he encounters. There is a running joke on identity throughout the movie as no one ever gets David’s name right and Patel makes Copperfield a chameleon character – lovingly adopting the vocal mannerisms and phrases of the eccentrics he encounters.

The light-hearted approach taken in The Personal History of David Copperfield is not going to satisfy purists but the film works marvellously as a tribute to the magnificent characters created by Charles Dickens and his exceptional storytelling.

 Release date: 24 January 2020




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One Comment

  1. My wife and I saw this film yesterday. It is full of Charles Dickens’s excessively whimsical characters. There is no swearing. It moves fast and so is entertaining. Unfortunately it has two odd characteristics. An elderly couple complained with some reason that they could not understand how, for example, the chief character could, aged 30, be present at his own birth. There were these strange episodes, meant to show that he wrote his autobiography at this age and made a fortune from selling the same. Worse, actors and actresses who are totally unsuited to their role have deliberately been hired because of a trendy desire to be “inclusive.” So we get the ridiculous sight of a character called Mr. Whitworth being a Chinese man with a daughter who is black! No criticism of their performances as actors and actresses is intended. All verisimilitude is lost. And of course there is the problem that Copperfield is acted by a man who is clearly Indian (not Dickens’s intention). My wife objected to this. My wife is Indian.

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