The Personal History of David Copperfield is Armando Iannucci’s quirkily imaginative transformation of Dickens’ novel bringing out its contemporary resonances.
What the Dickens?by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In this eighth film adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield, satirist Armando Iannucci has brought out new relevances for our times, such as the homelessness and overcrowded housing that blighted London and still does. There’s multiracial casting to reflect society both in Victorian times and now, says Iannucci. Dev Patel, onscreen all the time except for 15 minutes when Jairaj Varsani takes over as his childhood self, is the dream choice for Copperfield, in a performance brimming over with energy and enthusiasm, great comic timing and, well, genuine niceness.
Starting with his birth, David Copperfield is the narrator of his own story. It starts as a lecture he’s giving in a theatre and he appears as an observer in early scenes that he recounts. In fact, Iannucci uses all sorts of visual tricks to take us in and out of the story and make us aware that a life and an identity is being created. And he takes all sort of liberties with Dickens’ original novel: characters and events are reorganised and reimagined – it’s a very pared-down version of it.
Some of the familiar characters are still there: warm and bustling Peggotty (wonderful Daisy May Cooper), imperious Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), troubled, gentlemanly, sweet Mr Dick (excellent Hugh Laurie bringing depth), skinny, wily, melodramatic Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), kind, generous Peggotty’s brother (Paul Whitehouse with an impressive Suffolk accent), loathsome, oleaginous Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw) and deceiving Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard). Other, minor, characters are cut out completely (Barkis, Traddles) or changed utterly (Ham, the bottle factory and the lawyer’s office).
In fact, these changes exemplify the underlying meaning that Iannucci has seen. David Copperfield is a disguised autobiographical novel about becoming a writer. From childhood, David has collected phrases and sentences that stuck in his mind, whether they be Peggotty’s idiosyncratic similes or his own. As the author of his own life, David can decide who enters or leaves his story, who lives and who dies, who he writes in and who he writes out, and this is what he does in the end as he comes of age and starts to craft his adult identity.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is brilliantly imaginative, beautifully visualised, peopled with memorable characters and grotesques. It has a likeable hero and it has heart: it celebrates generosity, charity and friendship. Though bad things happen to good people, fortunes can ebb and flow, and there’s exploitation and child labour, good can still triumph. It’s about how Dickens came to be Dickens and it demonstrates why his works live on. David Copperfield was his favourite of his novels: whether or not we need another adaptation is a moot point, although Iannucci has seen its cinematic potential and has done an excellent transformation from page to screen.
The Personal History of David Copperfield premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 24 January 2020 in the UK.