“Casts a spell of hope and good humour”
At the opening gala of London Film Festival Armando Iannucci refreshes a British classic “to remind us of our comedic and cultural heritage”. Starring Dev Patel, his only choice for the titular role, The Personal History of David Copperfield is the fantastical tale of a life fully lived.
Despite a dense source text, the Copperfield honours the original choices Dickens made in his novel of the same name. The film uses Copperfield’s profession as a writer to cut down the hefty story and frame the film his ongoing monologue. The script is quick and full of witticisms that Copperfield earnestly scribbles down, showing a clear effort to include as many of the best quotes and quirks possible.
After his more cynical comedies, such as political satire The Thick Of It, Copperfield is Iannucci’s chance to be more stylised and optimistic. Though Dickensian predecessors have often been dingy, cobwebbed affairs, the bright colour palette and chaotic costuming bring the landscape of characters to life, conjuring a picturesque delight. This vibrant hybrid of modernity and tradition is like nothing seen before.
The aesthetic of Copperfield doesn’t quite align with Dickens’ ability to educate his Victorian audience on social issues, nor Iannucci’s attempts to showcase this with the advice of Shelter, the homeless charity. However, the rose-tinted lens fits perfectly within the premise of the titular character strolling through his memories, entertaining an eager audience. Even so, revisiting his childhood and realising its imperfections is key to his coming-of-age as he reflects upon his wide-eyed younger self (the adorable Jayraj Varsani). Patel is perfection, balancing his many selves effortlessly and capturing Copperfield’s cheerful disposition amid ever changing circumstances.
In a dreamy carousel of new faces and strange places, every character has a memorable entrance. While some, like the looming Jane Murdstone (Gwendonline Christie at full height) and the obsequious Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw categorically not at full height) remain villainous caricatures, others go beyond their first impressions.
Amongst these multi-dimensional performances is Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick, a lovely man haunted by the spirit of Charles I, who is a joy to watch. Laurie’s vulnerability goes beyond the eccentricity and does justice to what was an early literary example of mental illness. Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar and many others follow suit, celebrating humans in all their glory and chaos as Dickens would have wanted.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is aptly named, as a the patchwork of poverty and privilege works through the perspective of a narrator telling his story. Deep social commentary on factories and landlords may be lost amidst the levity and subjectivity of the piece, but the humanity within the comedy makes it worthwhile. It may not be about a magician, but the diverse, talented ensemble led by Patel cast a spell of hope and good humour.
Dir: Armando Iannucci
Prod: Glen Baser, Ben Browning, Célia Duval, Peter Fellows, Armando Iannucci, Kevin Loader.
Cast: Dev Patel, Jairaj Varsani, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whisaw, Morfydd Clark, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar, Aneurin Barnard.
Release date: 10th January 2020 (UK & Ireland)