The Personal History of David Copperfield

Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) leaves the Rookery in disgust after the baby she was positive would be a niece turned out to be a nephew, but housemaid Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper, HBO's 'Avenue 5') is simply thrilled with the new bundle of joy.  Her fun way with words will fascinate the boy as he grows up, but that will be made difficult after his mother Clara (Morfydd Clark, "Crawl"), widowed before he was born, marries the odious Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd).  He relates his winding, crisscrossing path to adulthood in “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”

Laura's Review: B+

Writer (with "In the Loop" and "Veep" cowriter Simon Blackwell)/director Armando Iannucci celebrates Charles Dickens’ favorite of his own novels by shaking it up and one comes away thinking the author would have approved.  Casting against Anglo-Saxon expectations – Copperfield is played by Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsani as a boy and Dev Patel as an adult, Mr. Wickfield by Benedict Wong and Agnes by Rosalind Eleazar      - underlines Dickins’ sympathy for the disadvantaged while also being utterly irrelevant in the scheme of things, just another colorful aspect of a colorful production.

All the main elements of Dickins’ novel are here, although some are curtailed, most notably David’s relationship with schoolmate Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, "The Goldfinch”) and Dora Spenlow whom he never actually marries (and interestingly cast with the same actress who plays his mother, making another of Dickins’ points about women in Victorian society), while others are treated more fancifully, like transitioning away from David’s time with Peggotty’s relatives in their overturned boat via a drawing, as if a daydream from life with Murdstone.  David may have been born of a lady, but he spends a lot of time with the common classes, from Daniel Peggotty (Paul Whitehouse, "The Death of Stalin") and his adopted children Ham (Anthony Welsh) and Emily (Aimée Kelly) working on the fishing piers to his banishment to Murdstone’s bottling plant where he boards with the family of the perpetually broke Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), David’s education deemed ‘too expensive.’  Informed that his mother has died, David rebels, then runs away to his aunt who graciously accepts the young man she’d rejected in infancy into her household where he will continue his learning experiences with the eccentric Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie).  He will also be enrolled in school.        

It is sometimes said a boy looks for his mother in the woman he chooses to marry, but although it is clear Copperfield’s mother is politically powerless as a newly married woman, we have no sense of her seriousness.  Dora, however, has been groomed for a life of silly triviality, the young woman insisting on speaking via her lapdog Jip.  David plays along, much to the bafflement of his aunt’s accountant Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes, who is clearly meant for him.  It will take the dire circumstances of both at the hands of their disloyal employee Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, sporting Jim Carrey's "Dumb & Dumber" do) to correct Copperfield’s focus.

Iannucci’s adaptation exploits the more extreme traits of Dickens’s characters for comedy.  Peggotty’s colorful sayings (‘what a world of gammon and spinach it is,’ ‘a crocodile is a potato’) dance through the air. Mr. Wickfield’s undue desire for drink is a constant battle of wits and will with the people who care for him.  Micawber may always be looking for a handout, but his company is priceless, even when being sent to debtor’s prison (‘You’re stealing an honest man’s chicken!’).  Copperfield’s proposal to Dora is a comedy of interruptions, his preoccupation with her expressed with her image popping up everywhere.  Production designer Cristina Casali uses a palette of blues to green with yellow to project Copperfield’s happier spaces and places - the Rookery’s interior, Peggotty’s beach and the sky where Mr. Dick flies his kites to settle his restless mind.  Costuming is colorful, Christopher Willis’s score playful.

The cast is such an embarrassment of riches one could imagine it filling multiple supporting award nomination slots.  First among equals is “Game of Thrones’” Gwendoline Christie who plays Murdstone’s sister Jane with smug sadism.  Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a delight, like Dickins funneled through the mind of Terry Gilliam without losing control of the chaos.                

Robin's Review: B+

You may or may not have read, or seen an adaptation of, Charles Dickens’ iconic semi-biographical story of a young man growing up in white Victorian England. Armando Iannucci turns the white bread classic into an ethnically diverse fantasy tale with “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”

I realized that, when getting ready to watch Ianucci’s take on the Dickens opus, I only had a cursory sense on what “David Copperfield” was about. So, I read a synopsis of the story to be a little more familiar with it and let this version rip.

Dev Patel plays the title character as his story, narrated as the adult Dickens, begins with the boy’s birth and loving early relationship with his mother, Clara (Morfydd Clark). But, that idyllic time is shattered when his mom introduces the boy to Murdstone (Darren Boyd), his new father-to-be. There is a problem, though. Murdstone does not like David, nor does the man’s mother (Gwendolyn Christie).

This leads to young David to be sent to “boarding school,” a euphemism for a bottle-making sweatshop in the poorest part of London. This begins the boy’s journey to enlightenment and finding his true calling – writing stories – and it is the catalyst to his meeting the many characters I knew of but not about.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield” has David as a natural observer of the many colorful characters he meets along the way to fame, fortune and the loss of both and their regain. Iannucci makes a colorful tale of colorful characters and, with a little jiggering, could have been a musical, too.

The meat of David’s story revolves around all of those colorful folk and I could describe the likes of Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family who took young David in or Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and his obsession with the beheaded King Charles I. But, I will not. Instead, you should see it for yourself and enjoy the story and the folk that populate it.

The ethnic diversity of the many individuals has the traditional white Victorian characters upended and replaced with black, brown and Asian people taking over for the Caucasians. As with “Hamilton,” I got past this device quickly and enjoyed the film all the more for it.