The Personal History of David Copperfield movie cast: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Lawrie, Ben Whishaw, Jairaj Varsani, Bronagh Gallagher
The Personal History of David Copperfield movie director: Armando Iannucci
The Personal History of David Copperfield movie rating: Three and a half stars
‘David Copperfield’, Charles Dickens’ eighth novel, is a universal favourite. In Iannucci’s candy-coloured version, with its sparing use of Dickensian dourness, and darkness, we get a perfect David for these uncertain times. Both as the young ‘un (Varsani) who has to deal with a cruel step-father, as well as the adolescent (Patel) facing a long period of brutal hard work, the essential optimism of David, boy to man, is always in evidence.
The best part of this good-natured picaresque, sometimes a bit too giddy for its own good, are the characters being brought to life by actors who feel they have sprung out of the pages of a classic Victorian novel. You never saw a cheerier, more apple-cheeked nurse than Peggotty (Cooper), and there was never a more joyful dwelling than the beached boat on the coast of Yarmouth, where David is sent off, so that his widowed mum can marry the horrible Mr Murdstone. The miserly Micawbers (Capaldi and Gallagher), cowering happily in their home, never having two farthings to rub together, are a delight. The bottling factory, presided over by the two men who revel in the misery of their young employees, slaving day and night, is straight out of a nightmare.
The original appearance of the work was in serialised form, till it turned into a novel in 1850. Iannucci’s film has the sprawling feel of a serial condensed into two hours, where beloved characters pop up when their time comes. As Betsey Trotwood, Tilda Swinton is a perfect picture of an eccentric aunt, who lives in the countryside, and presides over a generous household. Mr Dick (Lawrie), obsessed with an ill-fated monarch, is both present and absent, but never quite falls into the convenient category of being soft-in-the-head. The unctuous Uriah Heep (Whishaw), full of his own ‘umbleness’ comes adorned with an upturned bowl of hair, and a creepy air. And Rosalind Eelazar as Agnes Wickfield, who has a secret soft spot for David, is serene.
While the focus is on the interior life of a young man as a writer (both Varsani and Patel are shown deriving great pleasure from the use of words, spoken and written), this novel is a deep dive into its times. The rigidly maintained class difference, the plight of women always having to bow to their men, and children being forced to be more seen than heard, is all there, even if it sometimes comes off too jaunty. The parade is a good one, nonetheless, and I suppose one has to be grateful for any brightness that comes our way these days.
It is Patel who carries this ensemble with great flair, looking every inch the boy who has fallen upon hard times and longs to be recognised as the gentleman he is. Dickens’ England was mostly White, but this version, in keeping with the multi-cultural space that the UK has become, gives us all shades of colour. For a brown face, to play the very English David, is a way of overturning past personal histories, and making a new future. Just on that score, Patel’s leading presence in the film, is a triumph.