The Personal History of David Copperfield

Like Charles Dickens himself, this adaptation of David Copperfield is energetic fun, full of zest and effervescent comedy. Director Armando Iannucci’s film sweeps us along with a series of quickfire character sketches of the sort Dickens began with (Sketches by Boz), but it skims over the more serious parts of his autobiographical novel.

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A top-notch British cast relish the chance to join Dickens’ parade of eccentrics and it feels as if they often improvised and went ‘off-piste’. Much of the linguistic invention here is not taken from the book itself. For example, David describes the pistons at the factory where he works as ‘nodding like mad melancholy elephants.’

Everywhere you look there are memorable turns, with Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, Tilda Swinton as Betsy Trotwood (‘she’s fierce, like a birthing badger’), Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep and Daisy May Cooper (This Country) as Peggotty.

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Traditionalists are likely to be irritated by the ways in which Armando Iannucci seeks to freshen up the fusty ‘heritage’ conventions of period costume drama. From the word go, an Asian Dickens/Copperfield (Dev Patel) finishes addressing his London theatre audience, then breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by striding straight out into the English countryside to witness his own birth. We later see a love-sick Davey’s flights of fancy, as everything turns into Dora – clouds, pub signs, St Paul’s Cathedral. When he goes out on the town with Steerforth and chums Iannucci presents their drunken shenanigans as a knockabout speeded-up silent movie, with piano accompaniment to match.

Fans of The Death of Stalin will know that we should not expect faithful, anodyne retelling of (literary) history. For the most part The Personal History of David Copperfield works, but there is little in the way of substance here. David’s bereavement is played for laughs and Mr. Murdstone, so dark and disturbing in the novel, is reduced to a ‘pair of eyebrows’.

The open-faced and open-hearted Dev Patel makes a splendid Dickens/David, amused and bewildered by what life throws at him. The film is concerned with the history of how Dickens became a writer, the way he memorises and writes down everything unusual, such as Peggoty’s daft sayings (‘a potato is a crocodile’), and stores the rogue’s gallery of characters in his head, entertaining his schoolmates with impressions.

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Perhaps the most affecting scene is the one that best mixes comedy and pathos. David finds a wonderfully imaginative cure for Mr. Dick’s delusion (that he is the beheaded Charles the First), gluing all the scraps of his written bad thoughts onto a kite, then going out to fly it – ‘releasing the troubling thoughts to the wind.’

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Whether this comedic ‘therapy’ flies your own kite, or indeed floats your boat, will depend upon taste. If you agree with Uriah Heep’s mother, who prefers ‘a heavy cake’ (a mountainous Christmas pudding-type creation), then the cheeky ‘light sponge’ of Iannucci’s confection might not quite hit the spot.

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