The Personal History of David Coppperfield (2020)

Rates: * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Much anticipated new release.

Cast, crew, etc.


David Copperfield lives the definition of an eventful life. Born into poverty, he pinballs around the British class system, rising and falling in a series of episodic adventures that plays like a tour of Dickensian England. The big question then becomes: where will he end up?

If you have read the novel, or seen any of the approximately 800 previous screen adaptations, you know the answer. And if you haven’t, this film tips its hand immediately by starting in media res. To counter the familarity of the material, director Armando Ianucci, a big Dickens fan, has come up with an original way to stage it.

While the story takes place in the 19th century, Ianucci has cast his film like it was made in the multicultural 21st century. So David, played by Dev Patel, has Indian heritage, and many of the other actors are from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds. The idea is to connect the source material to the present day.

The England that Dickens knew was almost exclusively white. But many of the social issues he wrote about – class divisons, gap between rich and poor, lack of a social safety net – are still ones we grapple with today. Filling the film with actors that better reflect the demographics of contemporary England links these two things; same problems, different eras.

Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton

And many members of the big ensemble deliver terrific performances, my faves include; Hugh Laurie as the kite flying Mr Dick, Tilda Swinton as the no nonsense Betsey Trotwood, and Rosalind Eleazar as the lifelong friend who finally becomes a love interest. My MVP though, is Ben Whishaw as the unctious Uriah Heep; a man whose flattened mop of greasy hair and enthusiasm for firm cake mark him as a villain, long before the plot reveals it.

I was mixed on Patel’s performance, although this is partly due to the script. As his character rides the roller coaster of fortune, so his personality seems to change with each new chapter; madcap and zany one moment, melancholy the next. While the film makes the point that this is a person struggling to work out who they are – in a kindof running gag, the other main players all call him by a different name – these breathless transitions make this feel less like a person, and more like an amalgamation of ideas.

The film’s pace overall, is relentless. Which shows the difficulty of compounding a 600 page novel, originally published in serialised form, into a two hour movie. And Ianucci’s films always have a glibness, that I find distancing. This is on display again here, although not to the same extent as ‘In the Loop’ or ‘Death of Stalin’.

Still, this is entertaining. And whatever issues I had with the film, it is a bright and lively attempt to reintroduce a classic to a new audience.

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