Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.
Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse
Director: Armando Iannucci
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family. Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own. To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read. As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right? Wrong. So wrong.
Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation. There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version. You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic. It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.
So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield? Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings. While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful. It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease. The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.
Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep. As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy. The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before. It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations. That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.
For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another. At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl. His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z). During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe). He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.
There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do. Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised. What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant. One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome. The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.
Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character. Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes. I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation. As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property. If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good. That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.
Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by. That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze. A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too. I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise. Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.