At this point in the film game it’s fair to say that we have all seen our fair share of Charles Dickens adaptations. From 1969’s Oliver! to the many iterations of Great Expectations to The Muppet Christmas Carol, the iconic author’s works have proven to be solid foundations for some of the most memorable movies of our time! With themes and narratives that clearly still seem to be inspiring filmmakers of the modern age, now was the turn of Armando Iannucci to try his hand at Dickens. Perhaps an unexpected name for such a job, but for that reason I was very intrigued by The Personal History Of David Copperfield.
For anyone unfamiliar with the original story, the film follows the life, quite literally from birth, of David Copperfield (Dev Patel), a young man whose fortunes rise and fall and take him on a rags to riches and back again journey from the picturesque Yarmouth coast to the grime and grit of Victorian London. The ever present Dickensian themes of childhood, class and society are all explored throughout the film, with the all important innovation of ‘colourblind’ casting and a slightly pepped up script that provides a refreshing and funny spin on the original source material.
The first third or so of The Personal History Of David Copperfield are about as charming, witty and sumptuously ‘British’ as you could hope to see in film. The trademark Armando Iannucci vibes are out in force from minute one, and the tone of quaint period pleasantness punctuated with a more than a few barbs of passive aggressive banter makes for a really winning combination.
Crucially, however, The Personal History Of David Copperfield feels very much like a film with an incredibly strong start that doesn’t quite manage to maintain that high level for its full length. After the initial delight of strong character introductions and back and forth of witty banter, the picture starts to get a little bit bogged down by the details of the plot and falls into a rather routine and mundane feeling pattern for a good chunk of proceedings. Don’t get me wrong, the humour is still there, but there is just something in the tone of the latter stages that doesn’t feel quite as fresh and fun as the impressive beginning. The final third in particular feels incredibly rushed, to the extent that the film really feels like it is racing itself to the finish. This leaves a slightly unsatisfying taste in the mouth, which is unfortunate because it is the last impression that the viewer has before the credits roll.
A huge amount of the film’s overall charm comes from its pretty amazing ensemble cast. A veritable who’s who of British awesomeness, the decision to include a diverse mix of ethnicities among the roles feels both on trend and innovative at the same time. Innovative within the realm of traditional Dickens adaptations, yet on trend in the shadow of something like Hamilton. Either way, it really works here, and it prevents the film from being bound to a certain type or excluding any performer for any old fashioned reasons of ‘accuracy’.
As David Copperfield, Dev Patel evokes that signature earnest, likeable, sympathetic quality he has made somewhat of a trademark in all his best work from Slumdog Millionaire to Lion and even something like TV’s The Newsroom. He’s one of those actors who I enjoy in pretty much everything he does, even if the project as a whole doesn’t quite make the cut. Much love too for Jairaj Varsani, who lights up the screen and gives one of my favourite child performances in recent years as the young Copperfield in the films opening stages.
As for the rest of the motley crew, you really can’t go wrong when the names on the call sheet include the likes of Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, I could go on and on! Swinton in particular as David’s eccentric Aunt Betsey Trotwood is an absolute joy to watch, her comic timing is immaculate, not a single breath is wasted nor a single movement uncalculated, it’s close to being a masterclass in scene stealing support work.
Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi both also shine as Mr. Dick and Mr. Micawber respectively, the whole thing just looks and feels like a group of seasoned, talented professionals having a lot of fun with a new take on some classic material, and for the most part the audience are having just as much fun.
Overall, The Personal History Of David Copperfield is a welcome addition to the pantheon of Charles Dickens cinematic adaptations. The film provides sufficient laughs and sufficient whimsical charm, I just wish that its second half could have stayed as strong as its first. The picture comes flying out of the blocks and tickles your fancy in all of the right ways, before slightly plateauing in crucial later parts. Not an out and out home run, but certainly a decent hit that gets you over a few bases.