The Personal History of David Copperfield is a wonderfully absurd adaptation of Dickens’ classic tale that sometimes fails to hit the mark but still does the novel justice.
Who said that Dickens can’t be fun? Armando Iannucci‘s screen adaptation of the 19th Century writer’s favourite novel is its most imaginative, entertaining, accessible and wonderfully absurd retelling to date. And it should come as no surprise that it is delivered to us by the same director who gave us comedy masterpieces such as In The Loop and The Thick of It. Iannucci’s sense of humour is a very specific one, and The Personal History of David Copperfield is just as quirky, fast-paced and entertaining as the director’s earlier work. At the same time, it’s also faithful to the novel in its depiction of the misfortunes of its leading character – a child who lost his father too soon, an adoptive son who was abused by his violent stepfather and a young man whose misadventures and chance encounters significantly influenced his social status and wealth (or lack thereof).
That said, Iannucci’s adaptation is also a story that should captivate you more than it does, especially at the very beginning. If young Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani)’s pastel-coloured world of upside down boats and dreamlike bedrooms is as eyecatching as nurse Pegotty (Daisy May Cooper)’s plays on words are clever, one can’t help but feel that something is missing in the corny family portrait that appears to be Copperfield’s early life. That something is rhythm – that kind of pace that keeps your eyes glued to the screen from beginning to end as you listen to the characters’ puns and try to second guess their next move. That kind of rhythm that, in The Personal History of David Copperfield, appears precisely 29 minutes into the film – that is, when Peter Capaldi makes an appearance.
In fact, Capaldi’s entrance marks the beginning of a series of superbly acted, utterly compelling, genuinely entertaining scenes that more than make up for the movie’s initial lack of engagement. At times beautifully nonsensical and at times deeply meaningful, the remaining part of the film flows so well that it manages to make us forget about its tepid, overly polished beginning. And so we get to know the main players in David Copperfield’s story, from lovable, debt-ridden crooks Mr and Mrs Micawber (Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher) to eccentric, donkey-obsessed aunt Betsey Trotwood (the incredible Tilda Swinton) and kite-flying, Mad Hatter-like uncle Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). We familiarize with the movie’s villains, from David’s stepdad’s disquieting sister Miss Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie) to creepy, two faced impostor Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), and we laugh at David’s love interest (Morfydd Clark)’s quirks. We marvel at the film’s sophisticated mise-en-scène, we get lost in its surprisingly relatable world and we fall in love with its resourceful and charismatic protagonist – David Copperfield himself (now played by Dev Patel).
What makes The Personal History of David Copperfield work is the combination of an excellent screenplay (written by Iannucci’s longtime collaborator Simon Blackwell) and extraordinary acting performances from the entire cast, starting from Patel, Laurie, Capaldi, Swinton and Christie. If Blackwell’s screenplay turns witty Dickensian characters into well-rounded, all-too-relatable personalities who deliver hilarious lines and wink at us through the screen, the film’s entire cast infuses them with such passion, earnestness and charisma that we can’t help but be captivated by them. Iannucci’s colour-blind casting also proves to be an effective choice, as not only do we never question nor need to address Dev Patel’s origins, but the Slumdog Millionaire actor is absolutely perfect for the role.
Though The Personal History of David Copperfield is not a perfect film, it is also a refreshing and entirely believable take on a complex novel that correctly addresses its underlying theme with impressive lightness and charm. As young Copperfield climbs up and down the social ladder of what appears to be 19th Century England but might as well be our own, contemporary world, we are both entertained and inspired by his relentlessness and courage. The ordinary yet extraordinary characters he meets become familiar, his story becomes our own and his adventures even end up teaching us a lesson or two. The Personal History of David Copperfield is enjoyable, hilarious and surprisingly poetic, and it’s certainly the most entertaining adaptation of Dickens’s novel to date.