The Personal History of David Copperfield movie review: Dev Patel brings Dickens classic to life

The colour-blind casting in The Personal History of David Copperfield, however, airbrushes the painful reality of history. If David was Indian, his life in 19th century England would have been tragically different, and he would most certainly have not had a happy ending.

Prahlad Srihari December 10, 2020 08:14:56 IST

3.5/5

If burrowing into a classic is like a comfort blanket during winter but you don't want to be left heartbroken by the end, think of The Personal History of David Copperfield as an all-season microfibre duvet. If you're a Dickens fan, it will feel like revisiting an old friend as Armando Iannucci instils his adaptation with intimacy and familiarity. Yet again, you will find yourself rooting for Mr Micawber as he dodges creditors all around Victorian London. Aunt Betsey crying out over trespassing donkeys will bring a smile or two. Still weighed down by the visions of King Charles’ decapitated head is Mr Dick. James Steerforth remains a condescending prick. Always skulking around is that ever so 'umble and ever-scheming Uriah Heep. These characters will come to define the life, and eventually the work, of one David Copperfield. 

For the most part, to borrow a couple of Dickensian phrases, it's a whizbang adaptation with a sassigassity to it. Iannucci gives the novel a proper postmodern paint job. David obviously had quite an eventful life: an extraordinary journey of ever-changing fortunes sees him shipped off to an overturned boat in Yarmouth, a bottle factory in London and the boarding school of Salem House. These trials and tribulations were captured with a suitable liveliness in Dickens' prose.

Iannucci tries to convey the same through his staging. The film opens in a packed theatre, where the adult David is giving a reading of his autobiography, starting with those famous lines: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life…” Iannucci invokes a kind of storybook enchantment here. David marches right into a flashback, watching on as his widowed mother Clara goes into labour. This transitions into a montage of baby David growing into a curious child under the care of his mother and their kindly housekeeper Mrs Peggotty.

On the arrival of Edward Murdstone, the man courting his mother, David is sent away to live with Peggotty and her makeshift family in an upside-down boat house near the beach. Their idyllic sojourn, however, ends when a giant hand crashes through the roof. It's how young David sees his cruel stepfather. In other instances of fantasy being interwoven into reality, adult David observes his younger selves from childhood to adolescence, a drunken night out is staged like a silent movie sequence, and sets collapse to transition to the next chapter. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield movie review Dev Patel brings Dickens classic to life

Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) with David

Light and colour are also used to great effect. When David visits the boathouse as a kid, the scenes are warmly lit and vibrant. Everything in the house seems grander and more welcoming. This is in stark contrast to when he returns as an adult years later with Steerforth. Having experienced some measure of luxury, he is shocked by the boathouse's dinkiness and disrepair — as if it shrunk and all the colours were washed out.

In condensing a literary work so elaborate in detail and rich in characters to a film of less than two hours, some key parts of the plot happen in an abrupt, almost mechanical, fashion. For instance, David is informed by his cruel stepfather that his mother is not only dead, but also buried. This wipes out an important section where David returns home for the funeral. Much like Dickens, Iannucci's work — from his shows The Thick of It and Veep to his films In The Loop and The Death of Stalin — are marked by satire and caricatures. So, he does away with some of the overt sentimentality that also marked Dickens' prose. He sees David Copperfield as a comedy about the absurdity of one's circumstances. 

Keeping the heart of the story intact, he dials up the humour. In the novel, Trotwood mocks Peggotty's name and this is echoed in the movie too: “You mean to say a human being went into a church and had herself named Peggotty?” Quick comes a snappy retort from Peggotty: “It's funny because I just thought your name was Pot Kettle Black when you walked in.” It's a line which doesn't appear in the novel but one that carries Iannucci's own distinctive sharpness.

Consider some of the narrative changes Iannucci makes to the book less as blasphemy, more as fan fiction, in which Ham Peggotty doesn't drown and gets a happily-ever-after with his fiancé Emily. More importantly, the David-Dora-Agnes arc gets a better resolution. In the novel, David courts and eventually marries Dora, a naive, spoilt young girl everyone knows is wrong for him except him. Their marriage soon leaves them both unhappy. Alas, getting a divorce in Victorian England was not only frowned upon but also an expensive affair. So, Dickens offers David a way out by killing Dora following a miscarriage and long illness. On her deathbed, Dora asks Agnes — who's always been in love with David and quietly suffered through it all — to marry him. Agnes obliges, and becomes the self-sacrificing housewife David wanted all along.

By contrast, the film allows Dora to leave the story on her own accord. Dora, who likes to assist David by standing beside him and hold his pens, asks him to write her out the story because she fears she doesn't belong in it. By breaking it off, she saves herself from an unhappy marriage and death. Iannucci also gives Agnes more agency than Dickens did. She, not Mr Micawber, proves Uriah had been cooking the books. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield movie review Dev Patel brings Dickens classic to life

Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick and Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood

There are delightful performances from the centre to the margins. Dev Patel's searching gaze brings a fresh hope and intelligence to David. Matching Patel, wit for wit, Rosalind Eleazar renews Agnes as a modern figure not completely tethered by Victorian mores. Mr Micawber's blind optimism is sweetly personified by Peter Capaldi. Tilda Swinton is at her eccentric peak as Betsey Trotwood. Hugh Laurie brings a certain madness required to play Mr Dick. Aneurin Barnard modulates the entitled asshole-ness required to play Steerforth. Benedict Wong gets his drunk on as Mr Wickfield. Ben Whishaw brings a cynical edge, despite a softening bowl cut. Iannucci casts Morfydd Clark as both David's mother Clara and his first love Dora in an attempt to tease out the story's Oedipal implications. Dickens often describes both Clara and Dora in infantilising terms, in that they are quite child-like and spoilt.

The Personal History of David Copperfield movie review Dev Patel brings Dickens classic to life

Morfydd Clark as Dora Spenlow

The colour-blind casting, however, airbrushes the painful reality of history. If David was Indian, his life in 19th century England would have been tragically different, and he would most certainly have not had a happy ending. For a story in which class conflict is a key theme, it is silly to pretend colonialism and racism didn't exist. By actively acknowledging it, the film could have added a new perspective to a familiar tale. Instead, Iannucci unshackles the story of the melodramatic contrivances of Dickens' England only to be shackled by the modern contrivance of virtue signalling.

Class divide is at the forefront of Dickens' story. On the surface, Uriah appears meek in his interactions with David and James, but below the surface brews a resentment towards those above him on the social ladder. It's a familiar anger that drives the characters in many recent films, like Parasite and Hustlers. Only, Dickens establishes his good-bad duality based on the kind of people they become despite the poor hand the world has dealt them. Here, another duality emerges between the countryside and the city: the former is a place of kindness and tradition, the latter a place of cruelty and progress. In such a dog-eat-dog world brought on by the industrial revolution, socio-economic circumstances can change in a heartbeat. For orphaned children forced to work to make a living, fantasy becomes a lifeline to create a better world for yourself. Like for our titular hero, who rises above these harsh circumstances to become a gifted storyteller. David's (Dickens' and Iannucci's) love for language and diction as a writer becomes evident every time he notes down a sentence or phrase that often corresponds with a milestone in his life. 

Across this journey, David is bestowed many nicknames, which reveal a lot more about the namer than the named. He is Davy for Peggotty, Trot for Aunt Betsey, Master Copperfield for Mr Micawber, Doady for Dora, and Daisy for Steerforth. In these nicknames affectionately given or mockingly imposed, David creates his own identity — and turns out to be the hero of his own life.

The Personal History of David Copperfield releases on 11 December in theatres across India.

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