If there is one writer adapted more so than Shakespeare, it’s Dickens. From Oliver to Scrooge, the acclaimed author has had many movies, TV shows, and musicals based on his work. Now David Copperfield (no, not the magician,) can dust off his overtly large Victorian hat as he gets a big screen outing.
Directed by Armando Iannucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield revolves around the eponymous hero. Born in a quaint cottage with his loving mother, David’s childhood is suddenly uprooted by his abusive stepfather as he is sent to work in a London factory. Boarding with Mr Micawber, his wife, and children, Copperfield’s fortunes seems pitiful. That is until he runs away to his steely Aunt Betsy Trotwood and her weird cousin Mr Dick. As Copperfield steers his way through upper and lower class, riches and rags, never quite belonging in either world. With love and life constantly on the horizon, can Copperfield find his place in the world?
Dev Patel has an infectious energy as the titular role. Mastering Copperfield’s own whimsy and vibrancy of life, Patel bounces through Copperfield’s history and story with big, joyous eyes. Those same eyes could echo anger, rage, sadness, and sorrow. Fitted with colourful waistcoats and trousers, Patel brings the character to life with charm and gusto as he bounds through each second and scenery. Copperfield’s whimsical view on life will captivate you. Patel’s Copperfield impersonates other characters, narrates the film with a silky-voiced command, and brings depth to the role. Jairaj Varsani as a young David Copperfield is equally compelling. This is a character with heart and soul, it’s hard not to melt into Patel’s fervent performance.
Copperfield is populated by an assembly of crackpot characters including Hugh Laurie’s scene-stealing hapless Mr Dick, and a cantankerous Tilda Swinton plays David’s sharp-tongued aunt Betsey. Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher are phenomenal as the Micawbers who, with good spirits, flit through poverty, trying desperately to get a loan. Ben Whishaw transforms into the snivelling and parasitic Uriah Heap and Daisy May Cooper is outstanding as Peggotty, David’s childhood housekeeper, a steadfast presence by his side.
Iannucci, whose previous outing The Death of Stalin was certainly a cutting (and brilliant) satirical romp, now directs with whimsical modern flares. The film begins with Copperfield narrating to an audience on a stage before it melts into a field of memories that he strides across. Appearing as a character in his memories before a young Varsani shoots up to a tall Patel, it is with these whimsical moments that allow Iannucci’s flare to shine. Thanks to the cinematography by Zac Nicholson, the scenes blossom with effervescent colours that enchant the 1840s setting. Whilst the film does revel in the joy, Iannucci still keeps issues that plagued the Victorian masses including poverty, dyslexia, classism, and more. Maybe not as murky as most Victorian movies, there is dirt and villainy underneath the vibrancy.
The Personal History of David Copperfield drags its heels somewhat coming into the final third with an abundance of characters and not a great deal many places to put them. Yet this is a massive crowd-pleaser; a heart-warming tale of hope and determination against a diverse and vivid London backdrop.
The Personal History of David Copperfield screens as part of BFI London Film Festival.
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