Tuesday Review – The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

films, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m no Dickens fan. I don’t necessarily see why he’s the granddaddy of English literature. He’s the Victorian version of those clickbait articles that drag out a really boring story for about 5 pages to keep their stats up. I get that he was basically being paid by he word but did he have to make it so obvious. Then there are the bloody names. Every time anyone talks about Dickens they bang on about how funny his characters names are. Really? They’re like bad dad jokes at best. I don’t hate all of his novels of course. A Christmas Carol is a fantastic book and I have a certain love for Great Expectations. That’s about it though. It’s been years but I’m still bitter about having to study Hard Times for my A Levels. It’s such a boring book. With all of these negative feelings swimming around my head, you’d be forgiven for thinking that an adaptation of David Copperfield wasn’t the top of my list of must-see films. Well, it turns out that Armando Iannucci can make anything palatable.

As if we needed any further proof that Dickens was being paid by the word, the full title of his novel is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). That’s a small novel in itself. However, it does set up the story that you’re about to read. A rambling and complicated tale of a boys life that messes with the concepts of truth and fiction. The novel is also considered to be his most autobiographical novel. Aspects of David’s childhood play out almost exactly as they did in Charles’. You can see why Copperfield has been such a prominent literary figure over the years.

Thankfully, Armando Iannucci has picked quite the actor to portray him. Dev Patel really nail the character and makes him a thoroughly charming and wholly British young man. You like David from the off. He’s romantic, gentle and an incredibly dashing hero. Is he also a little arrogant? Yeah but he is the protagonist in a Dickens novel after all. Patel’s casting in the main role just goes to show how much care went into this adaptation of the novel. And it’s not just him. Iannucci has brought together an unbelievably brilliant group of British actors to tell this story. It might not be the kind of cast that most people associate with a period drama but fuck ’em. Everyone here is perfectly cast.

This isn’t just ticking the diversity box either. At every step, Iannucci challenges everything that we know about period dramas. This is a film that has been cast with the right people regardless of their race. It proves, yet again, that the supposed white landscape of history is no longer necessary. Joining Patel, Benedict Wong plays Mr Wickfield and newcomer Rosalind Eleazar stars as his daughter Agnes. This film is an endless list of top quality acting talent. Tilda Swinton is a marvel as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and Hugh Laurie is perfectly adorable as Mr Dick. The pair threaten to steal the show during every scene they step into. But I can’t forget Daisy May Cooper, Ben Whishaw and Peter Capaldi for the memorable performances.

I felt greedy watching this film. It’s so well-made, well-acted, and well-scripted. It felt like too good a film to be watching. I had so much fun and genuinely never wanted it to end. A Dickens novel might not seem like the obvious choice for the man who brought us The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin but has the same feel as his previous work. There is an energy in every camera movement and a playfulness in the way the story is told. It feels very much like A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Tristram Shandy. It also has some major Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam vibes. There really is something for everyone here.

So, why only 4 stars? I was so close to giving this film full marks because I’ve not been as entertained by a film for a while. It made me full of joy and I loved so much of it. And I swear, if Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi don’t make more films together than the world will be the worse for it. The only issue I have is that it doesn’t have time to really develop things. The whip fast pace of the film is both a blessing and a curse. It adds to the tone of the film but it also feels a bit rushed at times. I guess I was also a little disappointed by the social commentary. Both Dickens and Iannucci enjoy sticking it to the man but I was left wanting here. It kind of feels like an afterthought and, especially in 2020, a missed opportunity. Although, I have to say that I approve of the change in Dora’s storyline. She’s not much improved from her literary counterpart but at least she isn’t left to waste away after failing to be a wife. It’s a more empowered narrative choice.

Though it might not pack the same punch in terms of the working class, it is clear that both Dickens and Iannucci understand that passion for writing and creating. This is a film that is full of life and all of it’s absurdity. It is also full of joy, fun, and lessons. After several uninspiring Tuesday Reviews, this is a welcome change to proceedings.

4 thoughts on “Tuesday Review – The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

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