How often do you see a movie that feels made for you? The Personal History of David Copperfield hit those notes for me. It’s odd too. I haven’t read Charles Dickens’ 600+ page novel, nor can I say I’m supremely interested in the Victorian era any more than other areas of history. Even as far as this film is concerned, I can acknowledge how director/co-writer Armando Iannucci seems to wrestle with condensing such an epic novel into a two-hour feature. And yet, the film had a fresh, funny, and very charming way of getting to me at just the right time. Perhaps that speaks to how timeless this story is, or maybe it’s the efforts to add some modern sensibilities. Regardless, this David Copperfield was a delight.
Chronicling a story from birth to “now,” David Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani as a child, Dev Patel as an adult) goes on a journey from riches to rags to riches, and so on. He is born with an idyllic life, only for his widowed mother (Morfydd Clark) to marry the sinister Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who beats David and eventually sends him away to work at a factory. For unfortunate reasons, David eventually escapes his life of drudgery and goes to live with his wealthy aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her lodger, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). As more time passes, David pursues his ambitions to become a gentleman and an author.
To summarize this story in the briefest of manners does a disservice to so much of what happens. Still, in addition to the dramatic intensity of David’s tale, offset by moments of elation, the casting really redefines the way to look at Dickens’ work. For The Death of Stalin, Iannucci did away with fake Russian accents in favor of actors from Great Britain and America, who could suitable have fun with that film’s absurdist ways. Iannucci takes things one step further with David Copperfield by utilizing colorblind casting as a deliberate choice, letting the performances be informed by the representation, without paying it any specific attention.
Expanding on this point, while I believe the film wants to assert how trivial the role race/background really needs to play in bringing Dickens’ fictional story to life (and with hair like Dev Patel’s, who cares, really?), it does leave an impact. There’s a level of subversion going on by allowing a story set in this time period to have the heroes represented by a particular group and what it looks like to see life come down hard on them. On top of that, the bonds that form between some characters, others who act as foils, and the very presence of a beaming Benedict Wong go a long way to show what outside-of-the-box thinking can accomplish.
As mentioned, there is a denseness to the material that will no doubt test the patience of some. Keeping up with the characters and their motivations can be a challenge at times, especially when knowing there are loads of chapters to expand upon certain reveals or individuals. However, by pairing this down to a story almost entirely about the journey of David, writers Iannucci and Simon Blackwell do find a groove to rely on as far as the shifts in setting and tone. Patel’s winning performance is undoubtedly a reliable component as well, as the pathos he brings to scenes of all types managed to fill me with emotion on multiple occasions.
Still, to say the film perhaps comes up short on building a coherent narrative throughline that accounts for each individual as well as the overlying narrative, sure, I can see it. At the same time, while perhaps trafficking in filmmaking territory fit for a low budget Terry Gilliam film, there’s a sense whimsy in the visual presentation of the film that had me enjoying the sort of roundabout way the movie told its story.
As Iannucci builds on his directorial capabilities in terms of ambition, I’ll be satisfied as long as he continually finds a way to impress me. In his first couple of features, it came down to the wordplay and exaggerated behaviors. Moving to a stylized depiction of the 19th century, I’m seizing the opportunity to see the good in his attempts to make a family-friendly tale digging into the depths of being a true gentleman.
In having an exceedingly qualified and diverse cast (which also includes Peter Capaldi, Aneurin Barnard, Gwendoline Christie, Ben Whishaw, and Paul Whitehouse, among others) to go along with the world built to bring Dickens’ story to life, I found wonder to behold in this film. I see its limits, but at the same time, I look forward to the ways I will continue to absorb more of what’s being done in this film in the future. Ambitious as it is, Iannucci still knows how to leap before he jumps. The work has been put in to make some smart moves in adapting this story, and while it’s been done before, there are plenty of new riches to be found this time around.