Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci
Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw
Genre: Comedy / Drama
The life of David Copperfield (Patel) who grows up in Victorian Britain and the various unique characters that he encounters that help to shape the man that he becomes as he goes from rags to riches and back again.
As with Little Women, many of Dickens’ books get a new film or TV adaptation every few years, and while sometimes new versions like to just play it safe and change very little of the source material and instead rely on big production and even bigger stars, some others like to take risks and do something different. Well, with his unique eye for bringing us both absurd and insightful humour, Scottish writer-turned-also-director Armando Iannucci does certainly seem to be a great choice, and he does not disappoint in what is a vibrant, energetic and often hilarious take on Dickens’ famous story, as well as also having an appropriately contemporary feel to it.
In the same way that Greta Gerwig successfully gave the dialogue in Little Women a far more modern feel without undermining the source material or the actual setting of the story, Iannucci not only successfully does that with his script, but also his casting. Though the story is supposed to be based on Dickens’ own experiences, David Copperfield is for all wants and purposes a fictional story, and therefore in an adaptation such as this one which is very playful (but suitably respectful) in its approach, then in my view there is no reason why the cast cannot consist of actors of various race. Some may see it is a cynical move (though I would argue that view is actually even more cynical), but every single piece of casting is absolutely spot-on. Likewise, casting a huge list of famous names to star in a film can be interpreted as a cynical and lazy move to boost the marketing (something the likes of Wes Anderson can be guilty of), but no famous face is resorted to a pointless cameo where we simply watch it thinking “oh look its thingamajig turning up playing themselves”. Each member of the cast brings a unique and memorable quality to every single one of the plethora of characters within the film’s busy narrative.
Holding it all together as the film’s titular protagonist is Dev Patel in what is yet another superb performance from an actor who is starting to build up an impressive CV of increasingly diverse roles. After his convincing performance of brooding intensity in last years criminally underseen and underrated The Wedding Guest, Patel is naturally charismatic and engaging as David Copperfield, with certainly a great knack for immaculate comic timing both in terms of dialogue delivery, but also the more visual and physical comedy. There is no denying what happens within the narrative does at times feel more than a little fantastical and relies heavily on convenient coincidence (it is Dickens after all), but this is all the more forgivable as we are crucially given a protagonist who we do truly care about, and we genuinely believe in the friendships he has with some of the characters that he encounters.
Of course, there is also the inevitable melancholic moments, and these are predominantly handled very well, even if some of the films darkest moments do feel a little out of place. From start to finish there is an energetic playfulness, which is manifested by how the actual narrative is presented; David Copperfield narrates his own story, and the older David turns up at his own birth, while sometimes scenes are presented in a slightly surrealist way reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. The whole film is told with an infectious, vibrant energy that is manifested not only in the great performances, but also the direction and camerawork that make sure the film justifies being on the big screen, Zac Nicholson’s bright and vivid cinematography that truly brings the films locations and setting to life and Christopher Willis’ delightful score.
What is also evident is that though the film does present some of the narrative developments and comic set pieces with a slightly farcical tone, there is very much an evident natural affection and respect for the source material as well, and Iannucci on the whole does strike the right balance by being true to the source material but putting a far more contemporary feel to the story. Of course, the novel itself being over 400 pages, there is inevitably a lot to fit into a two hour film and though Iannucci’s choices of what to get rid of and keep within the narrative do certainly work and overall fit together cohesively, there is an unavoidable element of the whole thing feeling a little too rushed and us wanting to have more time with the characters. This may seem like an obvious criticism considering the vastness of the source material, but it does lead to the narrative occasionally feeling a little too episodic as it frantically hops from one stage of David’s life to the next. Though the performances make sure each character is certainly unique and memorable, they all need more screen time to be developed to a truly satisfying level that justifies some of their character arcs, leading to a slight feeling of frustration. This of course was always going to be an element that could only ever be rectified by this being a TV series and not a film, and though is a criticism on my part, it is also a great compliment to all involved that I just wanted to spent a lot more time with all these characters in what is a wonderfully involving cinematic experience.
A vibrant and energetic adaptation of a Dickens classic; The Personal History of David Copperfield is not only engaging, playful and often hilarious, but it also adds an appropriately contemporary element to the source material.