Synopsis – A modern take on Charles Dickens’s classic tale of a young orphan who is able to triumph over many obstacles.
My Take – I am not sure if it is just me, but considering the gloomy time we live in, I was in no rush to seek out yet another Charles Dickens screen adaption. With his stories mainly focusing on the hardships of the poor and their struggles to achieve greatness, just the idea to turn to his work for entertainment seemed, for the lack of a better word, tiresome.
Even though it has been around fifty years since the last film adaptation of one of his greatest novels, David Copperfield, hit the screens, the emotional story of the main protagonist’s trials and tribulations has managed to stick around in culture owing to its continued adaption on numerous other platforms like TV miniseries, stage musicals, among many others.
Luckily for us, director Armando Iannucci, who returns to the silver screen following his satirical riot The Death of Stalin (2017), has something else in mind. As his concentrated modern vision happens to be a surprisingly fresh and vibrant take, which while keeping Dickens’s subtle and witty humor, also manages to bring life to the semi-autobiographical novel with an absolutely delightful result.
It’s funny, charming and heartfelt all the way through, and while it may lack the biting satire and charisma of director Iannucci‘s best works (like Veep), there’s no denying how enjoyably strange this film is. The first thing that deserves to be noticed about this film is that the casting is fully color-blind. It’s hard to express just how refreshing it is to see a film of this nature do away with an actor’s ethnicity and cast them purely on their talent and ability to portray a character.
While it follows the original story as closely as it can, providing an engrossing coming-of-age tale of rags to riches that soars with the inspiring drama of Dickens‘ story, it also manages to find its own voice and form its own story, all with a delightfully offbeat persona. Making this film, without a doubt, one of the most entertaining biographical works I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the most pleasant surprises of 2020. It’s one of those films that leaves you with a huge smile even after the end credits have kicked in.
Narrated at a theater, the story follows David Copperfield (Dev Patel), who tells the story of his life, from his birth to younger days, all the way to adulthood. Born to a young but rich widow, Clara Copperfield (Morfydd Clark), a young David (Jairaj Varsani), finds his childhood delightful as learns and spends time with his mother and their kind housekeeper, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper).
That is until, Clara gets remarried to Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), a cruel, abusive and calculating man, who conspires with his sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie), an equally cold and disturbing woman, to ship off David to London to live with Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), a debt-ravaged but kind gentlemen, and his his family, and to work as a laborer in the Murdstone bottle factory.
However, once he’s grown a little, and more mature and worldly David runs away from the city to find solace in his wealthy great-aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton), who lives with her own eccentric distant relative, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Both who source David to find his way up in the world, but once again, as with everything, things come crashing down through no fault of his own, and David has to find a way to climb the ladder once again.
Despite the setting the film is wonderfully fast-paced, as it flies through David Copperfield’s upbringing and chaotic ups and downs between nobility and poverty. Furthered by energetic directing and performances, as well as editing that features the slightest hints of breaking the fourth wall, the film establishes itself right from the start as a feverishly eccentric watch. While readers of the beloved classic may be disappointed with the cutting of some major character plots and some missing famous quotes, but this adaptation exudes excitement and energy and does more than make up for any shortcomings.
Here, director Armando Iannucci rather than simply recounting the classic tale as a costume drama for the umpteenth time, this film tries to do something a little different, still paying homage to the original story but has some fun with tongue-in-cheek humor and modern sensibilities all the way through. Admittedly, not every joke lands perfectly, but the film is so jam-packed with laughter and energy that you’ll find yourself consistently entertained, only bolstered by those tongue-in-cheek winks and nods such as the fourth wall breaks and color-blind casting that only add to the brilliant eccentricity of it all.
And even with so much energy at play, the film manages to spend time to develop its drama in a heartfelt and engaging manner. Brilliantly linking up the story’s more inspiring emotional themes with the charming nature of the comedy. Watching David Copperfield’s journey to becoming a writer is so captivating and fun, not only due to the humorous screenplay, but mainly because it’s such an honest, emotional, genuine story. His character development is nourishing as he meets each character and learns from them, whether that be the language they use or the stories they tell. Every step along the way, he picks up on the different qualities of the remarkable set of people he meets, such as linguistic elements involving accent and dialect, but also mannerisms and ways of looking at life.
However, for all its quirky, old-fashioned appeal, there are some modern themes to be explored too. The scenes where Mr. Micawber battles against the bailiffs might be played for laughs, but his struggles to keep a roof over his head feel depressingly relevant even nearly 200 years later. It’s the same for the film’s clever dissection of class – which sees director Iannucci examine society’s ever-increasing financial disparities.
The film indeed has caught everyone due to its unusual casting, from the sense of black mother’s bearing white children for example, but it seems director Iannucci and his crew picked out actors that can best represent a character based on their mannerisms and acting skills rather than best racial fit. Of course things were different in the late 19th Century, people of color did not hold such positions like Mrs. Steerforth (Nikki Amuka-Bird) does, but the film challenges us to look past such things and I feel that it works.
The only problem that I had with the film was the inclusion of the sub plot revolving around James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who becomes David’s best friend, in the final arc which didn’t quite fit the whole structure, and instead felt like added on a few unnecessary extra minutes.
Performance wise, every cast member brings in their best here, and are incredibly fun to watch. With an exceptional platform to shine, Dev Patel delivers his finest performance to date in the titular role. Here, Patel brings an everyman charm to his role and proves why period dramas needn’t be stuffed with the same faces. The same goes for his younger self, Jairaj Varsani, who puts in an impressive performance.
In supporting roles, both Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie bring in some of their best turns, with Peter Capaldi continuing to being charmingly brilliant as always. In other roles, Daisy May Cooper, Benedict Wong, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Aneurin Barnard, Paul Whitehouse, Anthony Welsh, Rosalind Eleazar, Aimee Kelly, Sophie McShera, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Bronagh Gallagher, Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie are excellent. On the whole, ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ is a wonderfully strange yet utterly enjoyable tale that delivers a whirlwind adventure with a lots of laughs.
Directed – Armando Iannucci
Rated – PG
Run Time – 119 minutes