Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is so imaginatively conceived and so gloriously cast – with Dev Patel as Charles Dickens’s semi- autobiographical hero, and Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton in stunningly comic yet touching roles – that it banishes the very idea of a fusty 19th-Century period piece. Of course, anyone who has read Dickens as an adult, rather than forcibly in school, will realise that his books are hardly stuffy, but lively and comic.
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Iannucci is known for a different kind of comedy, with piercing political satires including The Death of Stalin and the TV series The Thick of It and Veep. Here he captures one of Dickens’s most essential qualities, though: the ability to create main characters who are real and affecting, and minor figures who are hilariously caricatured. What’s missing, and what makes this adaptation an enjoyable romp rather than a great film, is Dickens’s narrative pull. Iannucci is better at shaping scenes than he is at telling a story, so the film is a bit up and down.
David Copperfield, the novel that Dickens famously called his “favourite child”, borrows much from the author’s own life, including his boyhood working in a factory and his fame as a writer. The film mirrors the novel’s first-person narrative by making David a famous writer at the start, on stage at a theatre reading his life story to an audience. Suddenly, the image of his childhood home appears behind him and the adult David literally walks into his own past, looking on as his young, widowed mother goes into labour. It is the first of several scenes that create a storybook feel, especially in the boyhood episodes.
Two other women who will be crucial in David’s life are there at his birth, including his kindly nurse, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and his aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). Swinton instantly puts her mark on the film as Betsey, striding around energetically, aghast at Peggotty’s name, and so disappointed that the child is a boy and not the namesake goddaughter she expected that she leaves David’s life altogether (at least for a while).
Most of the characters leap off the screen with Dickensian verve. David’s stepfather, the cruel Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd), is too pallid a villain. But Murdstone’s sister, Jane, is played perfectly by Gwendoline Christie with a cold-blooded stare that would alarm adults as well as children, her pale face glaring out from her black bonnet.
The Murdstones send David to work in a bottling factory, where he boards with the always short-of-funds Mr Micawber and his family. Peter Capaldi as Micawber and Bronagh Gallagher as the endlessly loyal Mrs Micawber sharply define their fairly small roles. Later, Ben Whishaw makes the obsequious Uriah Heep the slimiest of villains.
The effect is to reinterpret Dicken’s characters in a way that makes sense today, putting a contemporary lens on the 19th-Century story
But the film really takes off when Patel takes over as David, still in the bottling factory. Patel was an inspired choice for the role, engaging and likable. The actors are from several races and ethnicities, a fact the film never calls attention to. The effect is to reinterpret Dicken’s characters in a way that makes sense today, putting a contemporary lens on the 19th-Century story.
When the Murdstones tell David that his mother has died and is already buried, he escapes the factory. Patel gets to yell in grief and anger and crash bottles to the floor, then sets off to see his Aunt Betsey. That’s where the film finds its best voice, tender and funny at once. Betsey lives in a cottage where she is constantly shooing passing donkeys off her property. She has taken in Mr Dick (Laurie) a kind, erudite and delusional man who hears Charles I in his head. Swinton, Laurie and Patel make an incomparable trio, and their scenes, in any configuration, might have been a delightful film in itself.
Without losing her comic edge, Swinton shows Betsey to be as kind-hearted underneath as she is imperious on the surface, and Laurie is a master at tossing off comic lines. When Mr Dick simply states the obvious, Laurie can make it funny. But he is also poignant, as we see how tortured Mr Dick is by the voices in his head. David, ever the writer, helps by suggesting they put Charles I words on Mr Dick’s kite and let them fly away.
Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell (who has worked with Iannucci on many projects) have efficiently conflated scenes and condensed Dickens’s lengthy novel. But in emphasising David’s trajectory as a writer, they short-change his romantic life. And in focusing on the comedy – there are plenty of set pieces, including one when bailiffs pull the Micawbers’ carpet out from under the door – they eliminate at least one major tragedy. Dickens was also a sentimentalist, which you’d never guess from this film.
The childish Dora, whom David marries in the book, has the same naivete here, but less importance in the story. When David falls in love, he sees Dora everywhere, and in another of Iannucci’s inventive choices, the film visualises his fantasies. A carriage driver has Dora’s blonde curls on his head; so does the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Morfydd Clark plays both Dora and David’s equally young mother, although that oddly revealing detail is easy to miss.
The film races too abruptly toward its end. Of course, in the 19th Century, Dickens had the luxury of going on and on. Iannucci takes two hours, and delivers a warm and lively David Copperfield for today.
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