Review: 'The Personal History of David Copperfield' is a Delightful Update
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Despite its popularity, David Copperfield has been mostly ignored by filmmakers comparatively. As Armando Iannucci, the director of the film adaptation under discussion recently said in an interview, “It has no beginning, no middle, no end.” The book certainly lacks the solid arc of other Dickens’s favorites such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. It also has a hero who is mostly just an observer rather than someone pro-active.
But anyone who knows I will understand his attraction towards material this messy. The filmmaker has been brutally satirizing Western politics in his TV shows and films. And what is the politics of the US and England if not messy.
‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ might be called his warmest, happiest film to date. That does not mean that it eschews the pointed social critique of Dickens. But while doing that it also embraces the rambunctious, free-wheeling spirit of the book.
One significant way it differs from anything else seen in any period piece (at least, on-screen, if not theatre) is his choice to have a colour-blind cast.
The lead of a Charles Dickens’ novel is, perhaps, the last role Dev Patel (or anyone else) would have imagined playing on the screen. But this a world where we have a Chinese Mr. Wakefield (Benedict Wong) whose daughter Agnes is played by Rosalind Eleaza, the mother of a very white Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) is Nikki Amuka-Bird as Mrs. Steerforth. The film is full of brave decisions and given that race relations are in focus again, it is also his most courageous and timely.
Not only does the film transforms into a microcosm of contemporary Britain but it also adds “Racism” to Dickens’ list of social evils. Hence, it is not just the casting and visual inventiveness that brings this classic to the modern era, it is this hot button and sadly still relevant topic too.
The cast is excellent from the Iannucci regular Peter Capaldi as the needy and scheming Mr. Micawber, to Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie both of whom are excellent as the misfit couple that is robbed of their fortune. But if the film has any great performances, they are definitely from Gwendoline Christie as the chilling Jane Murdstone and always surprising Ben Whishaw as Uria Heep who gradually emerges as the villain of the piece.
This brings us to our lead. Dev Patel is appropriately charming as David Copperfield. But he is also rather one-note. This oddly benefits the film as Copperfield is a character to whom always things are happening, and he is rarely the architect of his fate.
Innaucci has always displayed his love for words in his dialogues. The language in his films has been articulate even at its most crudely colorful. Here he finds love in written words as they literally float on screen, at times. David loves to write down interesting expressions that he hears or himself imagines and, as a writer, I found this aspect of the film rather moving.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a film of depth and inventiveness that does justice to Charles Dickens’s sprawling novel.