When you have a look of this title, you might think: “David Copperfield? Is this a film about the magician?” My brother certainly thought so when I told him I was watching it. If you clicked on this article with that sole expectation, then I’m afraid you’ll have to be disappointed. The film is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which is perhaps not one of his most popular books, since most would know him for Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. But it is my favourite Dickens, so I was looking forward to seeing Armando Iannucci’s treatment of this tale.
He didn’t disappoint.
Firstly, Iannucci chose Dev Patel as his protagonist. It is rare to see diversity casting in a period film, especially since Dickens was writing from a time where all his characters were white. But Iannucci absolutely makes it work, because he fills the film with characters of different diversities, so the society becomes a multi-cultural one. It is not the 19th century England Dickens captured in his novel, but that really doesn’t matter, since the magic of David Copperfield is in the narrative and our protaganist’s journey through the ebbs and flows of life.
The character himself was a writer, so Iannucci places him as the narrator of his own tale, with Patel’s furious writing becoming the key segment that transitions to different parts of the film. Patel has such a knack for mimicry as well, where he would perform some of the character’s key traits in order to commit them to memory (my favourite moments was when he copied Uriah Heep, played with such villainous aplomb by Ben Whishaw). The movie is dynamic in the way it plays with its style, with Patel’s character tearing through scenery to move to another scene, or using visual projections in the spaces around the characters to show plot points we aren’t privy to.
Patel is undoubtedly the star of this, with a great cast to prop up his obvious talents. He showcases Copperfield’s easy charm and charisma, which helps us understand why he is immediately able to engage all those around him. Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick is absolutely stellar, and the mental health struggles of the character really come across. Dickens doesn’t really hit upon what plagued Mr Dick, labelling him as “feeble-minded”, but the presentation of the character here for the first time gave me a full grasp of what Mr Dick had to deal with as he wrestles with retaining control over his mind (he could hear King Charles I in his head).
Iannucci, who also penned the screenplay along with Simon Blackwell, takes some creative liberties. The narrative doesn’t pan out the way it does in the book, most notably in terms of deaths. There are a series of deaths that occur in the second half of the novel, but Iannucci reduces the death toll and in a way, the blow of tragedy as well. I can understand the change, because the film is so focused on light over dark. There is such a strong sense of human spirit in David, and all the characters who surround him (except Uriah Heep, who is truly a creep), that to go so deeply into tragedy would have the film struggling to regain its tone by the resolution.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a true testament to the art of adaptation, recognising what works in the source material and having no qualms in changing it to suit the film’s narrative. These bold choices pay off, amounting in a film so filled with joie de vivre, even in the moments of turmoil and trouble. We see this so acutely in Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of Mr Micawber, who despite the howling of debtors at his door, is still able to smile and see the bright side of things.
Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) reminds David, as he laments about his troubles to her, that he started out in unhappiness with the Murdstones before finding some happiness, and now that tumultuous times are here once more, it is only a matter of time before things pick up again. Given the current state of the world, this film carries such a timely message of hope and pushing forward, eventually past the bleak times, to a space of “beautiful serenity”.
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The Personal History of David Copperfield takes bold risks in adapting the Dickens' classic - and it pays off in every, single way.
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