There’s a lot to like about Armando Iannucci’s interpretation of Charles Dickens’ “The Personal History of David Copperfield”; it’s well executed, bright, colorful, optimistic, often very funny and delightfully whimsical. But to me the film misses out on a lot of the societal satire and the famously grisly elements of Dickens’ work that made him so iconic. This felt much more like an adaptation of something by Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott – perfectly pleasant and sweet and featuring some aggressively decadent upholstery but to me seemed a strange interpretation of the source material.
The film chronicles the eventful and fascinating life of David Copperfield (Dev Patel) through his own narration, and all the zany people he encounters along the way, from living by the seaside with his maid Peggoty’s family (Daisy May Cooper) to his mother marrying the cruel and cold-hearted Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd) who sends him to work in a London factory. David lives as a young man with the kooky Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his misfit family who are constantly running from creditors and later finds refuge with his Aunt Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her cousin, the eccentric Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). David is sent to school by his aunt and lodges with the well meaning but aging and alcoholic Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), his beautiful daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) but also Mr Wickfield’s conniving and deceitful clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw). David eventually succeeds in his dream of becoming a writer, and the story closes with him a happy man, grateful for all the many people who have shaped him along the way.
There’s a lot going on here (the book itself is about 600 pages long) so it was never going to be an easy task condensing it all into a single film. That being said, I think the team here has actually done a pretty decent job in paying respect to the various settings and plotlines and ensuring that each of David Copperfield’s worlds are fully formed and unique. Tilda Swinton and Peter Capaldi are particularly fun as David’s great aunt and his creditor dodging guardian respectively, and Rosalind Eleazar is elegant and charming as Agnes Wickfield. The dialogue is funny, fresh and sharp (notably quite modern but I think it works well here) and the performances throughout are impressive (I wasn’t overly impressed with Dev Patel but I’ve never really thought he was that striking as an actor anyway). The storytelling devices and special effects used throughout are actually pretty incredible and add to the whimsical and fantastical element of the film, my favourite being a giant hand ripping the roof of a house to reveal that the house is actually a paper toy.
Where I didn’t necessarily agree with Iannucci’s creative spin was his interpretation of many of the characters themselves and the overall tone of the film, which is sweet and bright to the point of cloying. Dickens was so famous for his villains and for his scathing satire of the plights of Victorian England, particularly the terrible conditions of child labourers and class inequalities. I didn’t see any of this in this film, in fact Copperfield’s time in his step father’s factory and his experience living in supposed poverty with Mr. Micawber seems like a good bit of fun while the supposed bad guys (Mr Murdstone, his sister and Uriah Heep) are barely lukewarm depictions of how wretched, miserable and blatantly cruel their characters could have been.
Throughout his many experiences and various homes, David is called by a number of different names; “Master Copperfield” by Peggoty and her family, “Trot” by his aunt and Mr Dick, “Davy” by his mother, “Mister Copperfield” by Uriah Heep and Daisy by his friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard). The message here is that David adapts to his environment in order to survive and sacrifices some of his own identity, but I didn’t really see any evidence of this changing persona from Dev Patel’s performance. There is a noticeable lack of a character arc for David, and that adds to the sense that his eventual happiness and success is never really earned and that he doesn’t seem to grow or learn as the story progresses.
I think that’s my issue with it, the film is all treacle with nothing to cut through it; I would have been a whole lot happier that everything works out for David Copperfield if his entire life hadn’t have seemed like one long, butterfly-filled romp. None of it really seemed, well, very “Dickensian” at all.
By Jock Lehman