There’s a reason why Charles Dickens is one of the most beloved English novelists of all time. Known for his endlessly inventive, complex and entertaining narratives, his work is more often than not adapted on the small screen rather than in cinematic form. Examples such as the mini series of Bleak House often spring to mind, and Oliver is really the only of his works to truly translate to the big screen (and even that was majorly revised, and filled to the brim with broadway show tunes). No, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield doesn’t include musical numbers. But what it does do is manage to condense one of Dickens’ most expansive works, cover all the major events and the eccentric cast of characters, and not lose sight of the personal reflections of its author lodged in between the wit and fun, all in the space of under two hours.
David Copperfield (played by the wonderfully cast Dev Patel) has a tumultuous life to say the least. As his dear housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) tells him: “You had nothing, then you had something. Now you have nothing again”. It’s through this up and down trajectory that we follow David’s fortunes, interacting with the vast number of colourful character that we’ve come to accept from Dickens’ stories. Iannucci is able to skilfully capture the simultaneously rapid and spontaneous rhythm that makes something Dickensian whilst injecting the wit that characterises his earlier project The Death of Stalin (albeit with a less darkness and more whimsy). There are plenty of laugh out loud lines to keep us engaged but most importantly, pathos and humanity are still the beating heart of the film.
Indeed, like Greta Gerwig managed to do in Little Women last year, Iannucci emphasises the metanarrative aspect of the story. He frames the film as David recounting his life story to a paying audience, and frequently uses magical realist aesthetics to show narrator David interacting with the story he is telling. It’s not so much a way of portraying unreliable narration (though there are some allusions to crafting a better version of oneself through writing) but commenting on one’s own life, and reflecting on who and what makes you who you are. It’s a deeply felt idea that Iannucci manages to portray clearly and without interrupting the comedic flow of the narrative. Dickens himself argued that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and many have speculated the autobiographical nature of the original novel with Dickens’ own life. So, David’s interaction with his narrative echoes Dickens’ own. It’s a heartfelt and respectful effort from Iannucci and shows his utter skill and versatility in tone as a screenwriter.
There is the inherent issue in adapting beloved literary material, that involve the similarity and/or difference to the original source material. I have indeed read the novel, and the rushing of some moments does mean that some dramatic heft is lost for the sake of brevity, especially during the third act. But in truth, even if I hadn’t been exposed to the book, some moments in the climactic segments could have had a little time to breathe in order to reach their true emotional resonance. Everyone loves to rail against Dickens’ long-windedness but there are an equal number of problems with swinging too far in the opposite direction and arguably being too concise.
Other deviations from the source material however worked wonderfully in Iannucci’s favour. The much talked about blind casting of each character (with the cast defined by racial diversity) is a charming update to what could be considered simply another excuse to gather a load of white actors. Casting authenticity of period to the wind allowed for actors to be chosen based on the quality of their work and also made the Victorian setting feel far more vibrant and modern than any other Dickens adaptation. Dev Patel is endlessly likeable in the eponymous role and he’s proving himself time and time again to be one of the most charming actors around. The whole ensemble is also truly fantastic. Special mention must go to Ben Wishaw as the slimy Uriah Heep, a classic character brought creepily to life by the character actor.
I would love to see Iannucci tackle more Dickens (or other works of Victorian literature) if it means such an imaginative update of the material. It’s encouraging that modern filmmakers are looking back to the classics whilst simultaneously looking forward and acknowledging the current realities of Hollywood.
8/10: Iannucci has crafted a slick and funny retelling of The Personal History of David Copperfield, with a cracking cast and a script that, while not quite living up to the scope of Dickens, manages to condense the material whilst maintaining the universal themes.