The Personal History of David Copperfield

We have had plenty of Jane Austin inspired films in the last few years, including a charming version of “Emma” earlier this year. It’s time for a change up, but not too big a change, so we will stick to 19th century English writes, but change genders, decades and primary locations. Who is in the mood for some Charles Dickens? 

I’d not seen the trailer for this film before we went to the movies, in fact, I don’t even think I’d heard of it, but it was the weekend, theaters are opening up, and this was not “The New Mutants” so it became the designated choice for Saturday afternoon. From the start, you can tell this will be an interesting approach to telling the well worn story of David Copperfield. The opening of the film is set up like it was a lecture hall, and the audience was certainly more diverse than you would have seen in 1840’s London. That is one of the winning choices of the film makers. Casting was dictated not by historical accuracy or by Dickens’s description per se, but by the ability of actors to be charming in the roles that they are cast in. Our hero is portrayed as an adult by Dev Patel, not a traditional Englishmen of the stage. He is delightful in the role, and I have been a fan since “Slumdog Millionaire”.  He has an earnestness that matches well with the Dickensian moods of our hero. I assume that the young Ranveer Jaiswal  was chosen to play the young David Copperfield because he matched up with Patel in many ways, but the way that is most important is demeanor rather than appearance and that worked here. 

Director/writer Armando Iannucci is familiar to me because of two films, “In the Loop” which was a MOTM on the LAMB three years ago, and “The Death of Stalin” which was widely hailed and recommended to me. Both films were solid comedies with a bent to them that is very distinctive, and that sensibility is also found in this movie, at least in a few spots. I had some reservations because the framing device and transition to the traditional narration felt a bit frantic and unclear at the beginning. It was as if the director was struggling to signal that this is a comedy, while still trying to retain the elements of Copperfield that are not really funny. The whole thing settles down after about ten minutes and the more straightforward narrative takes over. There are still plenty of the odd moments and stylings that Iannucci is well known for, but it fills the story rather than driving it as we go along.

I recognized Peter Capaldi, not from Dr. Who, which I don’t watch, but from “In the Loop” and the “Paddington” films. I thought he was a perfect Mr. Micawber, and every time he showed up the movie was funny again. Hugh Laurie, who plays Mr. Dick, was also a comforting comical presence. Both of these actors are capable of playing off absurd circumstances yet still pulling some poignant moments amid the craziness. My guess is that most of the cast will be far more recognizable to Brits than we colonists, because they all seem very good, so they probably work in television programming or theater that is more U.K. centered.  

The casting of romantic counterparts in the film might be a little precocious since the point seemed to be to emphasize the lack of ethnocentricity,  The actors are so good however, that what might have been seen as an affectation, turns out to be barely noticeable. Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, a love interest for Patel, and the daughter of Benedict Wong’s Mr. Wickfield, crossed two ethic boundaries at once and we don’t care at all. This is the sort of casting I think would address the desire for diversity without drawing attention to the fact that you are trying to do that. 

For a complicated story, the film is paced pretty well. I do think that the opening section with the awful Mr. Murdstone needed to fleshed out a bit more, but perhaps the youthful Copperfield isn’t where the writer found the most joy in the story. If you are able to see the film, by all means do so. I think it would be easy to peg the costumes for awards consideration at the end of the year. The clothes help make the characters easy to understand and entertaining simultaneously. Copperfield has some tragic moments but this production does not dwell on them, it acknowledges those points but move quickly to it’s objective, which is to amuse us. The return of the bookend devices toward the end of the film are much less jarring than at the start of the story and they finish things off nicely.