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We’ve had enough of stuffy, aggressively faithful adaptations of beloved literature in recent times. John Crowley’s The Goldfinch was too in love with the messy multi-stranded melodrama of its source material. Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? tried too hard to replicate that novel’s self-aware zaniness. So, thank god for Armando Iannucci, a filmmaker who treats that which he adapts as a guidebook rather than a Bible.
This would be brave enough were he do it with any contemporary, beloved author. But to do it with Charles Dickens runs the risk of cries of sacrilege from the devoted. One need only to look at the ire from some social media circles following BBC’s recent, lightly revised version of A Christmas Carol to see evidence of that risk. Truth be told, The Personal History of David Copperfield might well be the strongest cinematic take on the Victorian scribe in quite some time. To make Iannucci blush even further, his film might find itself in good company among the likes of David Lean’s standard bearer Great Expectations.
The greatest strength here is something we see too rarely in adaptations of this kind: novelty. From the clever casting to the quaint, theatrical framing device and whizzing freneticism of the structure, he offers up a classic Dickensian story that feels excitingly unfamiliar while still retaining the vital elements we recognize. It’s as if the director has unearthed an unpublished masterpiece that was sitting untouched in his dusty attic for centuries before kindly releasing it to the world: a new tale from an old author we know so well. This is no mean feat for a story that is doubtlessly among the novelist’s most celebrated and well-known.
Dev Patel is our eponymous hero as we open in a playhouse. The film suggests a postmodern side as David Copperfield begins to recount his life story—or is it? —in front of a packed 19th century theatre. We already get the sense we are being recounted an autobiography with details that can be corrected and re-arranged at the whim of the man who is telling it. One love interest is even placed into a crucial scene before being removed when she feels she does not quite belong (she’s not wrong). This device is given an extra layer of playfulness when we consider that Copperfield is the work that most closely resembles the life of Dickens himself
We soon meet David as a young boy living with his single mother in Suffolk, England as events begin to be told in more traditional fashion. The young David is enjoying a relatively happy life with his sweet-natured but unworldly mother Clara before she marries the cruel, uncaring Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd). When Murdstone gets fed up of David’s insubordination, he sends the boy away to carry out grueling labour at a workhouse which makes glass bottles. Following the death of Clara, an older David finds his estranged aunt Betsy (Tilda Swinton), who provides him with opportunity and funding to live as a gentleman in London.
You might have feared Iannucci’s waggish satirical style would neuter the direct, empathetic storytelling of Dickens. In truth, they are a match made in heaven. Iannucci dials back his trademark, sardonic banter by just the right number of micrometers that it makes all the difference. The result is his warmest picture to date, a moving antidote to the most hermetic of rainy days. The Personal History… understands better than most that the best Dickens adaptions are those that lean into, rather than try to ground, his larger-than-life characters.
It’s difficult to think of enough superlatives to describe the quality of the actors here. The “colour-blind” casting is welcome just for the fact that it will surely annoy the worst people on the internet, but it goes beyond mere tokenism. Benedict Wong makes the pitiable alcoholic Mr Wicksteed into a terrific comic foil we can laugh at without feeling his plight is being minimised. Swinton seems to reach new heights on the Beaufort scale when she blows into every room as the resolutely altruistic Betsy Trotwood. A reasonable argument could be made for Hugh Laurie being the standout supporting player. His perennially confused but sporadically wise Mr Dick is the most poignant incarnation of Richard Babley yet seen. The fellow cast’s kind-hearted tolerance of his difficulties is made more touching because of him.
We’ve haven’t even mentioned Ben Whishaw as the sniveling, insincere Uriah Heep. Or Rosalind Eleazar as a more fiery, self-reliant Agnes than we are used to. Aneurin Barnard is so charming as Steerforth we almost forgive the bachelor’s failings in character. All great. It’s Patel however who must steer the ship and he voyages from boyish social awkwardness to mature humility with impressive ease.
With a runtime of just under two hours, there are those who will say Iannucci has bastardised Dickens’ most acclaimed and – by word count at least – lengthy novel. And no doubt The Personal History of David Copperfield suffers from a rushed conclusion in which too much is tied up too fast, but Iannucci has still pulled off an upset. His David Copperfield has a swooning sense of abandon and a spark of originality that’s missing from your average BBC four-part series. It’s a locomotive that powers forward for 119 minutes, with a cast of characters you will jump on board for.
Charles Dickens once described the novel David Copperfield as his ‘favourite child’. Iannucci might one day see his film as a sibling.