The Personal History of David Copperfield

The first beneficiary of my “no more half-stars, we commit to the bit” resolution/Letterboxd overhaul, is certainly The Personal History of David Copperfield, which is probably a 3 star movie on a screenplay level, but a 4 for how it personally made me feel! Which was happy! And in 2020 2021, is that not a value to be treasured and praised?

Granted, I have not read the original Charles Dickens novel, in full: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account), so have no idea if I might feel differently about this film’s merits or demerits if I had. I’ve read a number of other Dickens though, so while I cannot comment on whether this is a “good” adaptation of its specific source material, to me it did feel appreciably Dickensian. My working definition of a Dickensian work is that it is a long, ultimately somewhat moralizing tale that follows a colorful character through an exaggerated series of misadventures alternatively ruinous or fortuitous, throughout which there are approximately 250 other colorful characters arrayed. Critics were fairly right then that Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch has a relationship to this genre, as it hits most of those marks square on the head, with the one key exception being that the main character there is positively drained of all color, and his stuffed suit moroseness contributes to the pretentious pall cast over the whole thing, that Dickens, writing a monthly serial for a general audience, does not fall prey to so much. Now, interestingly, Aneurin Barnard is in BOTH of these 2019-released film adaptations as the lead’s Important Drunk Friend, which really is amazing, and had the effect of making me consider this exact full creative team doing the Goldfinch movie instead, with this same spry, absurdist tone, and then laugh and laugh.

Frankly, writer-director Armando Iannucci always seemed a curveball pick even for this project that he did do, given that most of his work previous has been original political black comedies shot in a faux documentary format, all but The Death of Stalin taking place in contemporary times, and all including The Death of Stalin characterized by his hallmark hilarious meanness. Copperfield, by contrast, is a PG-rated period film and just the cutest fucking thing. It’s sweet and sincere—still a comedy, still with a sense of humor you wouldn’t doubt as Iannucci’s, but without the bitter irony of a The Thick Of It or a Veep. And the nimbleness of the performances all across the board made me consider that while the classic Iannucci insult contains a cavalcade of words that Charles Dickens would NEVER use, it does contain a cavalcade of words. Iannucci is actually supremely suited to directing a script with a lot of stuff in it for his actors to say.

And what actors! Everyone in this is the best. Hugh Laurie plays a genially confused old man experiencing intrusive thoughts of King Charles I, beheaded two centuries prior. Tilda Swinton rockets brightly around every set, in between caterwauling off after donkeys in a field. You have never seen Ben Whishaw deliver a performance as sickening (not the gay definition) as his Uriah Heep. Gwendoline Christie plays an ice woman dressed in black and seven feet tall, and Peter Capaldi plays an orchestrina, badly. I had never seen Rosalind Eleazar in anything before but holy moly is she a delight, what a winning presence, manages the balancing act of a character a bit more sage than most of the others but still absolutely in the same world emotionally, and just so fun. But it is good and right that the most common descriptor I run across for this movie is “the Dev Patel David Copperfield.” Such is his impact! Dev Patel….is so charming. His vim! His heart! His beautiful face! And the little version of him: this precious boy!!

I mean really the biggest part of what I enjoyed about this movie was this cast wearing those clothes in those sets. For speaking of the colorful, this Dickens is colorful through and through, from the buoyantly colorblind casting to their color-drenched Victorian waistcoats and wallpapers, just this side of gaudy, and therefore: accurate. Peter Capaldi is dressed in mulberry velvet with pink vertical-striped socks, and Tilda Swinton is usually draped in head-to-toe turmeric holding court in her Tiffany blue sitting room. In one scene every lanky inch of Dev Patel is covered in patterned fabric and there are at least three of them. All the people and things on screen create together a world so vibrant and welcoming to the eye; it feels fairy tale but alive, fresh and living.

Now, what went wrong? Honestly I think it’s mostly just a script issue, I think there’s not enough material knitting the episodes together, and that it’s overall too quickly paced so trips over its own feet at times. I think the energy being up the whole time is a grand choice, but there were just too many plot beats to cover—I’m citing a speed issue, not a pep issue. Honestly I think Ianucci would have done really well with a miniseries, which is not something I would say for every film director, but in his case I know he’s actually very well-versed in writing for serialized television, and could do a terrific job with say, a 6-part series. I don’t necessarily think the way this was cut together was incompetent (though occasionally….a little cheesy), I think just trying to do it all in two hours was always gonna be an impossible task. The first edition of David Copperfield was 624 pages long.

But although at times this can careen all the way through rollicking into antic, with Hamlet’s unhinged connotations attached there, you can’t say it ever lacks spirit, and too many movies do, in my opinion. This was a right romp and I was glad to have it, jolts and all.

★★★★

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