Into a world where any Charles Dickens’ adaptation is considered an old-school artefact, Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin) brings a fresh and distinctive rendition of the author’s semi-autobiographical work, David Copperfield as originally titled ‘The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).‘ The director, co-writing the screenplay with Simon Blackwell, retains the author’s sense of adventure and exotic characters in the presentation. Additionally, Iannucci’s version is gifted with merry-making ensemble of casts and playful narrative that makes his take —shortened into The Personal History of David Copperfield— a jolly British Victorian experience.
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The story remains faithful to the book, recounting the fall and eventual rise of a young orphan, David Copperfield (Dev Patel)—not the American magician—who exquisitely climbs the social ladder to claim what has been taken from him. Born with a silver spoon, David has to endure a wretched life without any proper spoon to feed himself following the tragic death of his Lady mother. His cruel stepfather sends him into labor and unofficially denounces him from the family’s wealth. However, David toughens up before finally having his peculiar aunt, Betsy Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) on his back, as he discovers his storytelling gift. His ascending journey is compact but swift, but more importantly it’s as playful as it could be as David encounters myriads of outlandish characters who will, at the end, enrich his soul.
The joy and energy of The Personal History gravitates around Patel with his effortlessly charming performance. As his character narrates the personal memoir, Patel’s face will cleave apart among the crowd, manifesting a calming figures often in adversaries, and sometimes reacting to David’s own persona in the story. Patel’s uplifting interpretation of the titular character complements the playfulness of the story that Iannucci attempts to endorse. Most importantly, he bonds perfectly and leads the large bandwagon full of British finest performers in a surprisingly natural, non-traditional casting decisions favoring diversity. Swinton adds the much-needed outlandish feel to the plot along with Hugh Laurie, portraying Trotwood’s companion Mr. Dick who fancies paper kites. Other memorably exotic casts include Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, David’s lodger; Ben Whishaw as Mr. Spock-esque Uriah Heep along with Aneurin Barnard as Steerforth; Daisy May Cooper as Mrs. Peggotty, David’s childhood housekeeper; and Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield with Rosalind Eleazar portraying his daughter, Agnes.
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The problem is, Iannucci attempts to compress a 600-page story into a less than 2-hour film. With a long list of exhilarating characters, each with their own role in developing David into a full person, The Personal History seems to be cramped and under-developed in the narrative. To compensate it, Iannucci makes the latter half of the film swiftly with quick pace that outruns the first half’s laid-back tempo. Some characters make an impressive entrance but fade away without any warning from the story. One of the clearest example is Gwendoline Christie’s gorgeously vicious lady, Jane Murdstone, a.k.a. David’s stepfather’s sister. It has the impressions that some of them are merely used to cross off the lengthy to-have list.
The Personal History of David Copperfield, after all, provides the much-needed boost to reintroduce this Dickensian masterpiece in an accessible way for modern audiences. With plots that progress almost always forward without any major complications, it gives the opportunity for Patel to showcase his likeability with his charismatic momentum. As the titular character navigates a tumultuous world to find his place and leave his mark within it, the story unravels exhilarating and bittersweet magic made colorful by Copperfield’s eloquent words.