Film review: The Personal History of David Copperfield is a comedy blast

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★★★★☆

Armando Iannucci’s take on this classic novel is a joyride from start to finish, and is sure to provide fun for all ages.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a wild and wonderful journey through Victorian England, and no standard period drama. Chock-full of the directors trademark wit, it breaks itself free of the conventions of the genre and manages to make something all the more relevant than a straight-faced adaption of the surface material could ever hope to.

David Copperfield (Dev Patel) narrates his own story, from the rookery where he was born and the “downside upsize capsize boat” he spent his childhood visiting, to the heights of London elegance and aristocracy. We start with him as a precocious young boy, played with joyful charm by Jairaj Varsani, as he is sent away to work in a factory after his mother marries the well-to-do bully Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd).

He spends his childhood there, working under oppressive conditions and living with cockney credit-dodger Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family. They are plagued by debtors, who eventually pull the rug out from under them, metaphorically and literally, leaving Copperfield with nothing. After the death of his mother his entire life goes into turmoil, and he begins his odyssey through the various classes and creeds of the nation.

Joined by an eclectic mix of characters, from his donkey-despising Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) to obsequious Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), the Best of British cast features all sorts of recognisable faces, from comedy legend Paul Whitehouse to relative newcomer Daisy May Cooper. This will surely make watching this film with anyone over 40 hell, as every five minutes one of them will exclaim: “Oh I know them! What were they in?” on an endless loop until the credits roll and they can check on iMDB.

But the real importance of this cast comes in its diversity. The titular role is played by Dev Patel, a Londoner with Indian heritage, and the supporting cast sees the traditionally white roles of Mr Wickfield and Agnes go to Benedict Wong and Rosalind Eleazar. No questions are asked, and in bringing such a diverse cast to the 1850 novel, he reflects modern London in these bygone times, bringing more urgent relevance to its commentary of homelessness and the general barbarity of capitalism and class systems.

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In making this commentary, it creates an interesting companion piece with Iannucci’s early work on the small screen with The Thick Of It. Through spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) he poked fun at the severed-from-reality idiosyncrasies of the inner workings of Parliament. The expletive-laden jabs at those who create the rules work in opposition with the compassion shown by those affected by them in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Over a hundred years may separate the two works, but they both point to illogicalities in how the system works—they just look at it from different ends of the spectrum.

A kinetic energy carries the film through its various settings, with dashes of magical realism making every transition in his life as fluid as possible. Copperfield gets a new name almost every time his situation changes, showing us the different personalities he has to don to stand a chance of fitting in. Each new name only really has the opposite affect, othering him more and pointing out the cruel absurdity of class divide, where even if one does break through the barriers of their class, they can hardly hope to fit in unless they come from a “proper” family.

Despite this quite heavy social commentary, the script hardly wastes a line in its two hour runtime, managing to find the humour at every turn. A scene where Copperfield is to be beat by his stepfather is made into slapstick farce involving a bed pan, and Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell inject enough clever word play to make it instantly recognisable as their work.

It’s not the first time Iannucci has done Dickens, previously helming a documentary for the BBC on the writer, but I wouldn’t object if he now follows in the footsteps of Kenneth Branagh, with his penchant for adapting the classic works of Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, and continues to rework Dickens’ back catalogue. Despite focusing mainly on the oft-ignored comic aspects of the novel, he injects an urgency and vitality to the work, making the old not only seem new, but, most frighteningly, relevant.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is screening everywhere now, with showings at The Electric Cinema and The Mockingbird in Birmingham.


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Harry Benbow

Freelance writer working from Manchester. Interests include but are not limited to: Hugh Grant's hair in Maurice, cats, and the 2007 motion picture Zodiac.