WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
From birth to infancy, from adolescence to adulthood, the good-hearted David Copperfield is surrounded by kindness and wickedness, poverty and wealth, as he meets an array of remarkable characters in Victorian England. As David sets out to be a writer, in his quest for family, friendship, romance and status, the story of his life is the most seductive tale of all.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
If you are at all familiar with the work of Armando Iannucci (Veep, the Thick of It, the Death of Stalin), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that his stylish and stylized adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic is really bloody good and really, really funny but you would probably be surprised to hear just how big-hearted, uncynical and sentimental it is.
Co-written with frequent collaborator and major British comedy writer in his own right, Simon Blackwell, Iannuci has gone to great lengths to ensure that the Personal History of David Copperfield is no stuffy, overly reverent literary adaptation but is a fresh, vital, joyous and quirky and heartfelt take that brings out whatever comic touches the novel might already have.
With a framing device of David Copperfield relaying his life
story at a public reading, not only do we get narration that actually feels
earned when so much narration in film suffers so badly from the sin of telling
and not showing, but it allows Messrs. Ainnuci and Blackwell to really get
creative in how they tell this familiar story. From inventive scene transitions
to utterly demolishing the fourth wall, there’s a real energy to how The
Personal History of David Copperfield plays out beyond its already cracking
script and brilliant performances.
While the film never shies away from the harsher periods in
David Copperfield’s life and a great many of those scenes pack a serious
emotional punch, what really impresses is just how breathlessly entertaining it
is. It’s perfectly paced, covering vast acres of ground without ever feeling
rushed or overstretched and the characters, as played by a selection of some of
the best (mostly) British acting talent out there, manage to be both well drawn
and memorably larger-than life. And it can’t be emphasized enough: it is
As for that spectacular cast, it’s hard not to write
paragraphs about how perfect each of the major (and many of the minor players)
are in their roles. About how Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are the eccentric
comedy duo that you never knew you wanted; about how the great Peter Capaldi
has seldom been more sympathetic than as that loveable but pathetic scamp, Mr
Micawber (picture Fagen but as a sweetheart); or about how Gwendoline Christie
has never been more imposing or Ben Whishaw never further away from his most
beloved roles as the genuinely creepy, Uriah Heep.
One can certainly go on for days about how perfect Dev Patel
is in the title role or how Benedict Wong will no doubt surprise those who only
know him from his Marvel role, but why bother? With a cast this impressive
working with a script this good and in so safe a pair of hands as Armando
Iannucci, there was no way that they weren’t going to – to quote another
beloved British actor – “blow the bloody doors off.” It’s not just the more
familiar names who don’t put a foot wrong, though. There isn’t a bad
performance or bad bit of casting in sight.
Which, of course, brings us to that elephant that’s been
sitting quietly in the corner, waiting its turn. Undoubtedly, the thing that is
probably most controversial about this version of David Copperfield is the
decision to go for “colour-blind casting”; the decision to cast actors purely
for how well they fit the part, regardless of their race or ethnicity. It’s an
interesting decision that no doubt is largely responsible for the shameful 6.4
rating it has received on the IMDB but it does, admittedly, take a second to
get used to seeing blood-relatives of completely different races and a
Victorian England where different ethnicities enjoy the same status. It is only
a momentary distraction, though, and the minute you buy into the unspoken
fantastical conventions of this already quite heightened story, it quickly
becomes clear that rather than just some desperate attempt at “wokeness”, it
has resulted in a cast that genuinely can’t be improved upon.
And that’s pretty true of the entire film. This is a very familiar story, but I can’t imagine a better telling of it than this. I certainly can’t imagine a funnier, more moving, more lively David Copperfield – and that applies both to the film as a whole and to Dev Patel’s perfect rendition of the character. Forget that 6.4 IMDB rating or even the respectable 7.7 Metacritic rating: this is the real deal – an easy five out of five and clearly one of the best and most welcome films of the year.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
The Personal History of David Copperfield is now showing in cinemas.