Current Issue #488

Film Review:
The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel in David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s version of Charles Dickens’ much-filmed eighth novel is a spirited, sometimes joyous dramatic comedy headed by a gorgeous performance by Dev Patel.

The Indian-English Patel is perfect casting as David, and co-writer, co-producer and director Iannucci deliberately chose him and a large multiethnic cast because they could act and were right for the material – which might upset purists out there who will insist that everyone here should be white. And, well, bad luck to them.

This potentially creaky tale might also seem a strange project for the Scottish Iannucci given he was the guy who created TV’s very modern The Thick Of It, Veep, Avenue 5 and more, but he gives the cobwebbed material a kick in the pants and brings it alive with energetic pacing, bracing emotion and lovely humour.

The adult David (Dev) reads the story of his life to an appreciative theatre audience (who are later seen sitting in a field in an intriguingly alienating touch), and he then strides across a field to be present at his own birth, as his mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) shrieks in pain and his fruity great-aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) gets in the way. An idyllic early childhood in Yarmouth (where he’s played by Jairaj Varsani) with Mum and beloved Nanny Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper) is cut short when his mother is forced to marry the abusive Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), whose icy sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) is always at his side, and soon David is shipped off to work in Murdstone’s factory with many other unwanted children.

Luckily David isn’t completely alone during these years, as he lodges with the always-skint Mr. Micawber and his family and is treated with great affection, even as the Micawbers keep eluding armies of creditors. The sweetly shady Micawber is one of Dickens’ most beloved characters (previously he’s been portrayed by everyone from W.C. Fields to Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards from Seinfeld), and here Peter Capaldi brings wonderful warmth and comic relish to the role. His notoriously foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from Iannucci’s The Thick Of It would surely be appalled.

Later David (now played by Patel) escapes to the countryside home of Aunt Betsey and her eccentric lodger Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie from Iannucci’s Avenue 5), and a host of new characters are introduced, notably including the decidedly odd Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong, also one of the second-tier but still much-admired Avengers) and his wise, even saintly daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). They’re a splendid bunch and, again, Iannucci chose his plum cast based upon their ability to fill their roles, not their race, so if you have any issue with that then you’d better stay well away (and grow up too).

It’s also worth pointing out that London in the mid-1800s was diverse in a way that costume movies have never depicted, and Kevin Loader, a producer here, has rightly stated elsewhere that, “London was the centre of a huge global empire, and was full of everybody, just as it’s a global city now. Traditionally, Dickens adaptations haven’t reflected that.” So why exactly couldn’t David Copperfield be a gentleman of Indian descent?

After all, it’s not like he was a real person… was he?

The Personal History Of David Copperfield (PG) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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