The third adaptation of a literary classic in recent months, following Little Women and Emma, The Personal History of David Copperfield is based on Charles Dickens’ novel and brought to the screen by Amando Iannucci.
Telling the story of its titular character from birth to middle age, the film follows Copperfield – played as a child by Jairaj Varsani and as an adult by the great Dev Patel – as he moves through life, the protagonist of his own quasi-autobiography.
Charting Copperfield’s journey, the film combines magical moments of childhood excitement, best exemplified by the hull of an upturned boat that has been transformed into the brightly coloured beach home of Peggotty’s extended family, alongside moments of utter misery, such as when young Copperfield finds himself unloved and bullied in the harsh confines of an East End bottle-making factory.
The Personal History of David Copperfield has a strong cast; Tilda Swinton’s Betsy Trotwood, Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick, Rosalind Eleazar’s Agnes, and Paul Whitehouse’s Mr Peggotty are all well realised, while Ben Whishaw’s suspiciously obsequious Uriah Heep is near perfect. In much the same way as Iannucci’s previous film, The Death of Stalin, cast a variety of actors to play the heads of the Soviet Union without having them deliver their lines in Russian accents, David Copperfield uses a multi-racial cast to tell Dickens’ story. This, like in the director’s previous feature, serves to emphasise characterisation and dialogue, rather than banal naturalism, and it is an effective, striking technique.
There are visual moments, such as a trip in a cart travelling to Peggotty’s home, when the beauty of the British countryside becomes truly sublime. Similarly, the art and costume design are well realised. For fans of the costume part of costume drama the outfits may not be quite as boldly realised as in Emma, although Mr Micawber’s (Peter Capaldi) crimson coat and Copperfield’s suits in later scenes come close.
The narrative is primarily structured around a series of key sequences in our protagonist’s life – Copperfield the child, Copperfield at school, Copperfield in London, and so on – but while each is good, there’s a sense that the film is slightly too sketchy in places, and could benefit from a more focused over-arching and driving narrative. The Death of Stalin was something of a masterwork, and while The Personal History of David Copperfield does not feel as well realised as his previous feature, it should satisfy those who are enjoying the current crop of adaptations of classic novels.