REVIEW: The Personal History of David Copperfield (London Film Festival 2019)
From poking fun at Soviet Russia in The Death Of Stalin, to arming Peter Capaldi’s director of communications with delicious verbal zingers in The Thick Of It and In The Loop. In this rather turbulent and somewhat horrific modern political landscape where the fat cats continue to prove inadequate, Armando Iannucci has always been a blinding and superior satirical beacon of light for us so-called commoners.
On initial reflection, him announcing an adaptation of a much-beloved semi-autobiographical Charles Dickens classic, that revels in the splendour of the Victorian Era would perhaps nullify the traits that have encapsulated his work thus far. And yet while there is no denying ‘The Personal History Of David Copperfield’ is a more refined, family-friendly version of Iannucci, there are no diminishing returns to be found in this distinctive re-imagining.
Ever the enthusiastic presence, Dev Patel is no stranger to such uplifting character arcs as Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire would attest, seamlessly fitting into the titular role. He may have been providing the answers there, but in these rocky beginnings he’s overloaded with questions, keen to find a sense of place to truly fulfil his ambitions. Tilda Swinton’s headstrong aunt Betsie lamenting the birth of the boy. Coupled with his unpleasant run-ins with his anger-fuelled stepfather Edward Murstone (Darren Boyd) and Edward’s vindictive mother Jane (Gwendoline Christie), sets him on an uncertain course through the streets of London, with a colourful array of characters ready to influence this aspiring writer in his journey.
Consistently showcasing a verve and eloquence with language. Iannucci is adept in tweaking the prose of Dickens for his progressively diverse ensemble, enabling him to infuse his own brand of absurdity and situational comedy that is recognisable, without losing considerable weight of the themes of wealth and poverty that will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary audiences. If there is a minor complaint in Iannucci’s streamlining of the material, it’s that the narrative does have a tendency to be quite episodic as it looks to devotes worthy screentime to its superior cast. But when it boasts multiple performances that are this wildly entertaining, it’s easily forgivable.
Leading the way with sheer confidence, Dev Patel’s David Copperfield anchors the film superbly, his abundance of charm and bewilderment to the far wackier people around him is infinitely watchable. Perhaps one of a very select few who can sport a bowl cut reasonably well, Ben Whishaw is on venomous form as Uriah Heep. Whilst much of the eccentricity is left to the trio consisting of Tilda Swinton’s donkey-hating Aunt Betsit, Hugh Laurie’s kite-loving Mr Dick and Peter Capaldi’s downtrodden Wilkins Micawber, who are reliable scene-stealers.
This approach spills into the splendid production design and occasionally surreal aesthetic too.The gentle sway of the camera in time with a clock befitting of the film’s nimble leaps and dynamics. Copperfield’s thoughts that are delicately placed onto the page, vividly sprawled onto the walls allowing us a poignant projection into his intelligent mind, only to see the storm in some hearts literally break the fourth wall and integrate with another setting. There is a conscious effort to subvert the stuffy period piece familiarity here and it works wonders.
For a man who normally has his finger on the pulse of modern affairs. Armando Ianucci’s ‘The Personal History Of David Copperfield’ is a delightful crowd-pleasing departure, proving he’s just as sharp-witted with the past as he is with the present.
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Written by: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell
Cast: Dev Patel, Gwendoline Christie, Ben Wishaw, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, Peter Capaldi