'The Personal History of David Copperfield' Review | BFI London Film Festival 2019
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Charles Dickens and his literary works are, today, treated with the highest respect. He’s a staple of the western canon, a world-renowned author and a figure who has, in time, molded our very perception of Victorian Britain. It’s often forgotten, though, that Dickens’ writings were originally considered mass entertainment; you could suppose his texts were the 'Marvel Studios' films of their day.
Published episodically in newspapers and magazines, his stories gripped those that could read them and, eventually, reached the level of reverence that they find themselves in today. It is the mission of The Personal History of David Copperfield, then, to bring the fun back to Dickens - and it does so with resounding success.
Director Armando Iannucci is no stranger to Dickens' writings; he confessed in a recent interview that he fell in love with 'Great Expectations' as a teenager. In 2012 he released Armando's Tale of Charles Dickens, a BBC Two documentary cutting through the author's veneration and tackling the man behind the myth. He's now turned his focus to adapting David Copperfield, and his vision continues to playfully dismiss deference in the exact same way.
After Copperfield was screened to the London press last week, Iannucci took to the stage for a Q&A; he stated that, due to the current debate around "what Britain is and [is not]", he wanted to make something positive, something that depicts his Britain. One way he's achieved this is through the use of racially blind casting, which sees various actors of colour take on traditionally white roles.
The most obvious form of race-bending comes with the casting of our protagonist (David Copperfield is here played by Dev Patel), but Anthony Welch, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Benedict Wong also make appearances. These actors help to create a vision of London on-screen that reflects the real London of today, and in a world where British heritage films are whiter Donald Trump's fan-base The Personal History of David Copperfield stands tall as a genre-defying love letter to England's invaluable diversity.
Simon Blackwell's script is packed with jokes, and while not all of the comedy here is successful there are many laughs to be had. Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie provide the biggest laughs in the film and own each scene they're in. Swinton in particular appears to play the role of Ms. Trotwood with a sense of absolute glee, and I'd argue much of the film's magic emanates from her performance.
Despite these nuggets of comedy gold, the plot feels very rushed. At times, Copperfield can feel as hasty as a SparkNotes or Shmoop synopsis. I wonder whether Iannucci's take on the source material would have been better suited to the small-screen - at least a television series format would have given the plot some space to breathe alongside all the jokes. Still, the film's brisk pace keeps the tone light, meaning that (while the novel's darker themes are definitely undercut) the film's incredibly accessible for youngsters.
All in all, Copperfield is an unabashedly charming film. It's a treat to watch such a talented ensemble cast sink their teeth into source material of this calibre; this kind of fun can normally only be found live at the theatre. So while it can feel rushed and shallow and (at times) a tiny bit clunky, this is a great film to take the family to in the upcoming winter months.
Written by James Green