Film Review: “The Personal History of David Copperfield” Gets Two Hits

Based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel “David Copperfield,” this film is set in the 1800s, yet director Armando Iannucci uses post-modern narrative techniques that reflect 21st Century sensibilities. He is color-blind in his casting of characters and he uses touches of magical realism as when a large fist reaches through the ceiling and grabs David away during one of his happier moments. Cinematic in descriptions, Dickens’ novels lend themselves to film adaptations and his themes translate well into subsequent centuries, especially his belief that personal character and tenacity along with some good luck can propel a young man into a fulfilling life.

Working with co-writer Simon Blackwell, Iannucci begins his classic coming-of-age story in a theater with an actor reading from a podium the opening line of the novel: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” By casting Indian actor Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as David, Iannucci prepares us for a variety of non-traditional casting choices—some Black, others Asian and many white.  Employing magical realism, he places Patel’s David throughout the film as a spectator of his own life events, even witnessing his mother, Clara, giving birth to him.

Present at his birth is David’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), childless herself but certain that her sister-in-law is giving birth to a girl, she leaves in disappointment and disgust when the infant is a boy. Widowed, Clara (Morfydd Clark) raises David with the help of her maid Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), whose devotion to David creates one of the loving consistencies in his life. But when Clara remarries, we meet the first villain to cast a shadow on David’s life, Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and his imperious sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie).  Soon David, who challenges his stepfather’s authority, is shipped off to London to work in a bottle factory and to live with the penniless Micawber family.

When David learns from Murdstone that his mother has died and he has not even been told of her funeral, David runs away to find his Aunt Betsey in Dover. Levity releases some of the sorrow and abandonment that have entered David’s life as he finds Aunt Betsey, who takes him in and whose only worry in life seems to be the donkeys who wander onto  her large estate. David brings companionship to her odd tenant Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), who enjoys flying kites with him. David meets the accountant who manages his aunt’s estate, Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), incompetent much of the time because of his fondness for sherry, but his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), proves to be the most sensible of all the characters and develops a fondness for David that we hope he will return.

Several adventures await David, and Iannucci skillfully weaves them into the latter third of the film, including David’s doomed friendship with his schoolmate Steerforth (Aneurin  Barnard), his foolish affection for Dora (played by the same actress who played Clara), his visits to the seaside town of Yarmouth, and his acumen in uncovering the villainy of Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw). In establishing his role in life, David faces kind and helpful people as well as cruel and selfish characters, and some who are foolish and hapless. Underscoring the various challenges David faces and the roles life demands of him, Iannucci uses Dickens’ own device of changing names. Aunt Betsey never calls him David and always refers to him as Trotwood, his friend Steerforth calls him Daisy, while the silly Dora names him Doady.

Of the many memorable novels penned by Charles Dickens, “David Copperfield” is the most autobiographical, his own boyhood being so fraught with misfortune that the term “Dickensian childhood” has become part of our lexicon. Although dated in its settings and costumes, even 21st Century audiences will find in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” a buoyant optimism possible even in the most challenging circumstances.

Two Hits: Don’t Miss it!

A Hit & A Miss: You Might Like it.

Two Misses: Don’t Bother.

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