Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Molly Leeming reviews the whimsical and refreshing literary adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield.

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Image Credit: Lionsgate UK

Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Rosalind Eleazar
Running time : 1hr 59mins
Rating : PG

The Personal History of David Copperfield is the latest directorial offering from Armando Iannucci, who having previously presented us with the razor sharp political satires In the Loop and The Death of Stalin has now veered into the ostensibly completely different territory of classic literary adaptation. However, while David Copperfield has an undeniably charming, even feel-good tone which certainly doesn’t apply to its more cynical filmic predecessors, it is anything but a vacant, complacent period drama. It delivers its 170 year old source material with invigorating zest, and takes real risks which it pulls of with considerable aplomb, making for a fresh and exciting take on the all-too-often stale and unimaginative genre of period literary adaptation.

David Copperfield may be a period drama, but it certainly doesn’t endeavour to present a historically accurate, in the classical sense, portrait of the mid-nineteenth century. Iannucci presents us with an intoxicating world which is not surreal per se, but is often detached from reality in the manner of a daydream. A friend who saw it at the cinema with me said that it put him in mind of Mary Poppins, and I can see why he made this connection. As well as both having a family-friendly tone, David Copperfield, much like Mary Poppins, is a film which flits along through a fairly conventional narrative structure, but with an irrepressible glee for the absurd and bizarre tangents and touches which the act of storytelling throws in along the way.

For me, one of the most delightful of these absurd moments is when David (played with irresistible likeability by Dev Patel), at the height of his infatuation with the eminently unsuitable Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark, a particularly hilarious highlight in a film which is chock-full of superb comic performances) sees her simpering features everywhere, to the extent that he at one point gazes adoringly out of his window at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which we see sporting an enormous wig resembling the fussy, blonde ringleted hairstyle of his beloved.

These touches, however whimsical, are so much more than frivolous fripperies. This is above all a film about storytelling, and memory. These moments remind us that we are completely in the realm of the subjective, with David himself presenting us with his story as he remembers it, as he feels it, and as he wishes us to see it. Rather than this creating an alienating, gloomily post-modern air of distrust and lack of truth however, this acknowledgement of the foibles and inaccuracies of our protagonist and storyteller only serves to give more of an intimate insight into the character of David himself. This take invites the audience to view David not as an omniscient narrator-god, presenting us with a rigorously accurate and objective account of the events of his life, and by extension, the times he lived in. Instead we are privy to the altogether more human and intimate process of remembering and storytelling.

Furthermore, by shedding any obligation to present the past in a historically realistic manner, Iannucci opens up the possibility for colour blind casting. It has been noted that one of the barriers which British actors of colour face is that in period dramas- one of the British film industry’s key exports- they are generally either relegated to peripheral roles, such as servant, or they are excluded completely. David Copperfield is not attempting to present a historically accurate view of Victorian racial dynamics, and thus allows for many excellent British actors of colour, such as Patel, Rosalind Eleazar, and Benedict Wong, to play meaty central roles. Colour blind casting is a phenomenon which I am far more accustomed to seeing on the stage, but I hope that this very high profile and successful example of colour blind casting will encourage the practice to become more commonplace in mainstream cinema. Another step, in terms of period dramas which do intend to present a historically accurate vision of the past, is to simply make more films with the stories of non-white characters’ at their core, but that is a matter for another article.

While those expecting a more conventional classic literary adaptation may be initially somewhat thrown off by Iannucci’s distinctively absurd take on the original text, few could deny that this film is true to the spirit of Dickens. The work of Dickens lends itself so readily to dramatic adaptation (this was true even in his lifetime, with stage adaptations of his novels proving enormously popular) that what is entailed by the term ‘Dickensian’ is rooted in everyone’s pop-cultural awareness. Iannucci does not reject these familiar and much-loved tropes: men in big top-hats, oddball characters with silly names, cute ragamuffin children, grimy London streets; the instantly recognisable hallmarks of a Dickens adaptation.

However, he also, without labouring the point, gets across another aspect central to Dickens which can often be obscured by romanticised portrayals of Victorian London with its safely distant and historically aesthetic poverty; that of social commentary. Class and inequality are a central theme throughout Dicken’s work but in David Copperfield there is a particular focus on housing. David’s fortunes fluctuate wildly, and economic instability means housing instability, with him and other characters at various points being made homeless, or having to live in a slum. Iannucci could lodge this safely in the bad old days of workhouses and cheeky street urchins, instead, he brings the still very much relevant issue of housing inequality uncompromisingly to our attention. This is hardly a gritty, polemical Ken Loach film, yet the strain of social commentary, with the shots of people sleeping rough on the streets of London horribly reminiscent of modern-day London, where homelessness is currently more rife than ever, gives this otherwise joyful film a sobering bite.

With The Personal History of David Copperfield Iannucci has reinvigorated the classic literary adaptation, taking one of the oldest of British film staples and making it fresh, accessible and exciting. This is so much more than a dusty heritage film; it speaks to us in a vividly human voice, which is both in touch with the age-old practice of storytelling, and insistently contemporary and relevant.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at York City Screen

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