Take 2: The Personal History of David Copperfield
Updated: Jan 6
Why is it that The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci) is the first film released in UK cinemas in 2020 that I have seen twice? Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens’s classic novel is not my favourite film of the year; I can’t claim it is revolutionary or particularly outstanding. And yet, I have seen it twice, I have thoroughly enjoyed it twice, and it has the potential to become a Sunday afternoon treasure, not only in my own house, but I suspect in households around the country.
I was first alerted to the universality of Iannucci’s Copperfield by the sheer magnitude of Tweets singing its praises: everyone seemed compelled to let the world know of the joy of this film, including just about all of the film critics I follow and even Pointless’s Richard Osman. The magic trick that David Copperfield pulls off, much like those of his namesake, is simple and yet seemingly nearly impossible to achieve: it is unusually, uncynically and unrelentingly nice. Family fun packed to the brim with superb British actors and gentle comedy. And it is truly the performances which are at the heart of the movie, the extraordinary cast all on top form, not one of them putting a foot wrong, from Peter Capaldi to Paul Whitehouse, Tilda Swinton to rising star Daisy May Cooper. Special mentions must go to Hugh Laurie and Ben Whishaw who steal every scene they are in, and, of course, Dev Patel, whose relatively understated performance in the central role grounds the film and really ties all the eccentric madness together. The truth is that none of the actors are doing anything we haven’t seen before; we all know how marvellous each and every one of them can be, and they are all playing into the types we know they embody so well. But that does not diminish the value of the film: it is an excellent sum of parts, a veritable anthology of our favourite British actors, doing their best comic turns, assembled for our viewing pleasure.
The plot plays out as anyone familiar with Dickens’s source material might expect – a rollercoaster of highs and lows, undeserved poverty and thrilling successes that pave the road to the satisfying happy ending everybody can see is just around the corner, whether they are familiar with Dickens or not. What makes Iannucci’s reworking so inspired, however, is in the way he injects it with hints of modernity. It never feels like you are watching an adaptation of Victorian literature, more that you are watching a dreamlike fantasy, channelling Roald Dahl as much as Charles Dickens, where the protagonists hardships are faced with stoicism and unextinguishable positivity, and the baddies always get their comeuppance. Naturally, the escapism comes all wrapped up in fantasised locations: romanticised visions of London and boarding school and the beaches of Great Yarmouth, and this is perhaps the greatest appeal of the film, an enthralling fantasy captured in a tone beyond which most filmmakers can even envisage. Far from the scathing satire for which Iannucci is best known, this is a wonderful foray into lighter, gentler pastures, his mastery over the craft in two such different areas of the genre truly cementing him as one of the greatest comedy directors working today.
The happy ending is similarly greeted with a modern (or perhaps even post-modern) twist, as Iannucci employs a similar device to that used by Greta Gerwig in her recent adaptation of Little Women (2019). Both directors use their endings to relate their characters to the author of their source material, implying the autobiographical nature of both stories whilst also encouraging thoughts on the nature of authorship, through the writers via the film’s directors to their characters, a tripled stamp of ownership and reflection upon their own lives. As Copperfield sits at his writing desk and some of the film’s funniest quotes are shown scrawled on scraps of paper during the end credits, the spectators, too, are invited to reflect on what they have just seen, and perhaps also what story they would tell and what eccentric quotes they would include were they to try and sum up their own lives and adventures.
Intriguing in a different way is the racial debate surrounding this film. In this conversation, even the most seemingly neutral decisions are political, every film ever made has a stake in race and you can be sure there will be somebody out there who is against the racial dynamics at play in your film for one reason or another. In this minefield, Copperfield makes a bold choice. Not only does it cast Patel, a man of mixed British-Kenyan-Indian origins, as its traditionally white lead character, it passes this off without comment, and surrounds him with an assortment of characters of different ethnicities so that black, white and Asian characters can all be members of the same family and this is seen as perfectly normal. Is this true colour-blindness? Or an artistic decision that tugs at the seams of immersion as it goes against the traditional, ‘invisible’ casting technique of making directly related family members look as similar as possible? Viewers will make up their own minds, but I find it hard to believe it will notably distract from the escapism and comfort of enjoying two hours of well crafted, wholesome entertainment.
At time of writing, The Personal History of David Copperfield is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.