By Elias Savada.
Bold, delightful, and eternally optimistic, The Personal History of David Copperfield is very clever indeed, without a hint of Victorian stuffiness.”
It’s been filmed, telefeatured, and serialized for tv more than a dozen times, but the new version of the Charles Dickens classic from director Armando Ianucci gives it quite a charming new spin. Humility and humor merge in glorious form, and a diversity emerges that wasn’t found in the original novel, or any other previous adaptations.
You probably figured that out if you noticed the star of this latest fanciful flight from Ianucci (scripting with his frequent collaborator, Simon Blackwell): Dev Patel, the English actor born to Guharati Indian Hindu parents. Patel’s feature debut as a teenager in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire a dozen years ago brought him to the world’s attention, and he’s been on a steady rise ever since, including the award-winning biopic Lion (2016) and a pair of 2018 action thrillers, Hotel Mumbai and The Wedding Guest.
The actor of color’s spirited appearance in The Personal History of David Copperfield brings a new addition to his highlight reel, and he gets to share it with a very large and talented cast. According to Patel, “What Armando has done is … a true definition of color-blind casting.” Ianucci and Blackwell adeptly capture the book’s soul, even if jettisoning some supporting characters (heck, the book was 624 pages long!), while performing minor surgery here and there on others, but the director so wonderfully choreographs the chaos that is Copperfield’s life that the film floats by like a lovely breeze.
There’s a nimble, anxious pace throughout this most handsome interpretation of one of the world’s greatest pieces of literature. It’s a change of pace for the filmmaker’s penchant for political satires (In the Loop and The Death of Stalin) that were his first two features. For Ianucci, known for spinning frantic farce out of impenetrable governmental characters, whether on the big screen or the small one (HBO’s Veep), his new film allowed him to jettison a lot of the plot and drama, “to me those are the least interesting things about the story.” Ianucci, a lifelong fan of the author, took first crack at the author with a 2012 BBC-TV produced special called Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, which also removed a good deal of the Victorian seriousness and focusing on the comedy.
Take the opened scene, a self-referential homage to the semi-autobiographical nature of the book. The harried Clara Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), the harried maid attending to a flustered Clara Copperfield in her final throes of childbirth. A intrusive woman, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), arrives at the home amid the commotion and starts to straighten some of the bric-a-brac. Maybe she’s an interior decorator, or a nosy neighbor, but readers will recognize her as David’s eccentric aunt. A second later Copperfield (Patel) is in the room, talking about what is his birth as only Dickens can “To begin my life, with the beginning of my life.”
11-year-old Jairai Varsani, in his feature debut, carries the film’s “Young David” role for the first half hour, during which the widow Copperfield marries the arrogant, brutish Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), a harsh taskmaster. Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie is Murdstone’s horrid sister, Jane. The lad gets some breathing room when he is sent to live with Miss Peggotty’s brother Daniel (Paul Whitehouse) and his adopted race-neutral children Emma and Ham.
The upside-down boat that is this segment’s beachside domicile is one of the fine examples of off-kilter production design (courtesy of Cristina Casali, another long-time Ianucci co-worker) that make the film all the more enjoyable. David’s stepfather’s bottling factory, abundant with dreary swarms of child labor, is another venue that comes under smashing attack in the film.
While the script’s necessary truncation tends to cause some cracks in the sprawling story, the entire cast is cracker jack. Peter Capaldi hams things up marvelously as Mr. Micawber (who never seems to change clothes or age, like numerous other characters). Morfydd Clark, who played David’s mother early in the film, re-appears later as Dora Spenlow, the curly-haired and exceedingly silly daughter of his employer. David is smitten. Their courtship involves a dog and a tree sprig used a means of conversation. Aunt Betsey returns gloriously while her partner, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), becomes very attached to his kite. Amongst the handful of despicable folks, Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), reigns supreme, if just for his hairdo alone.
As the action races by, you do recognize that the book’s chapters are being transformed into a series of vignettes, with an exaggerated flavor of a character here, some witty interpretation of Dickens’s text in another, and a sprinkling of inventive, nontraditional, and often clashing, approach to wardrobe.
Ianucci also adds a dash of fanciful whimsy. David is so head-over-heels for Dora, that he might see her name everywhere, even written in clouds against a beautiful blue sky. Or he might turn down all the talking and just present his work as a silent flicker, sped up and with intertitles.
Bold, delightful, and eternally optimistic, The Personal History of David Copperfield is very clever indeed, without a hint of Victorian stuffiness. It’s almost too much fun.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).