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Film review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

24 January 2020

Stephen Brown reviews a well-loved novel in an irreverent film version

Dev Patel as the title character in The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel as the title character in The Personal History of David Copperfield

ARMANDO IANNUCCI’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (Cert. PG) takes some liberties. No Tommy Traddles, Julia Mills, or a willin’ Barkis, for example, as feature in Charles Dickens’s partly autobiographical classic of more than 600 pages. The director, responsible for the corrosively satirical television series The Thick of It and film The Death of Stalin, claims that he has avoided other dramatisations’ sentimentality. He jests at hypocrisy and religious cant.

Dickens himself criticised these tendencies in institutional religion. As in the book, Iannucci also perceives the story as one of constant spiritual rebirth. The trigger is the consequences proceeding from the death of young Copperfield’s father. After Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) “re-christens” (her word) David, this becomes a frequent occurrence, a signifier of each new relationship and life-stage. Bundled from pillar to post, he graduates from being called Davy to Trotwood, Trot, Daisy, and Doady, and in the film he’s even mistakenly introduced as Tosserfield, a not entirely inaccurate description. Though more sinned against than sinning, he is occasionally perverse and foolish, too. It is a pilgrim’s progress with many a setback in Copperfield’s search for identity.

The casting in general is colour-blind, without ever a suggestion why Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is the adult David; or why the Nigerian-born Nikki Amuka-Bird plays the mother of Steerforth (the white actor Aneurin Barnard); or why Rosalind Eleazar, who is black, portrays Agnes, daughter of an Asian Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong). That said, it feels in the spirit of Dickens’s pursuit of social justice for the film to make a point of ignoring race.

Iannucci doesn’t shy away from examining evils that continue to scar people’s lives, such as unhealthy industrial conditions, child abuse, elitism, and greed. Even so, it is geniality (with touches of Monty Python) that triumphs in this piece. Yet, despite a veritable cavalcade of British talent (Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Wishaw, et al.) who turn in bravura performances, one is left somewhat underwhelmed by it. My sense is that there is insufficient caricature attached to the leading actors’ performances. They are played a little too straight for us to be carried along by the larger-than-life personalities that parody requires if it is to make its point.

Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Dev Patel as David Copperfield, and Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood in The Personal History of David Copperfield

The film all but concludes with Copperfield’s giving a Dickens-like reading to a theatre audience in which he says: “My truest hope is that I might grow half as strong and wise in the telling of this story as they have grown in the living of it.” All those scraps of paper on which he had written up his experiences have become a powerful fiction.

Akin to the film version of Atonement (Arts, 7 September 2007), whether this is what actually happened or not, the author has contrived happiness and justice for those deserving of it, and punishment for those who are not. By doing so, is Iannucci questioning or affirming Dickens’s own belief in God’s restorative grace continually at work? Or recognising in a landscape peopled with psychologically impoverished characters our human need for stories that give us hope? The orphaned Copperfield is representative of us all. We seek a Father who makes all things well.

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