LFF 2019: The Personal History of David Copperfield

This year’s London Film Festival opener starring Dev Patel

There’s always a sense of dread that greets the news that a director best known for making comedies has opted to “go serious”, and pivot to a dramatic feature following a breakthrough critical success. The most notorious recent example is Michel Hazanavicius following up his best director Oscar win for The Artist with a sobering drama about the late 90s conflict in Chechnya, assuming it would cement his favour with the Academy – instead, the dour drama got middling reviews and never received American distribution.

Hearing that Armando Iannucci would be following up a decades spanning career of acclaimed ensemble comedies on screens big and small with a Dickens adaptation conjures up similar feelings of dread. Is this just another case of a comedy director buying into their critical praise too much, and making an adaptation of a “worthy” novel to cement their status as a serious artist? Mercifully, the answer is no – his take on Dickens’ beloved novel manages to stay faithful to the source material, while tweaking it just enough to feel like a perfect fit in the Iannucci back catalogue. The foul mouthed rants of In the Loop and The Death of Stalin are nowhere to be seen here (this is an Iannucci film for the whole family!), but the quick fire wit, and excellent performances from a stacked ensemble, are as present as you’d hope for from an Iannucci project.

The narrative remains faithful to Dickens’ novel. We witness the life of David Copperfield (Dev Patel) as he narrates his story for an audience, starting with his childhood with an abusive stepfather, to being banished and sent to London, starting a career path that sees as many fortunes as misfortunes.

There have been many recent complaints from schoolteachers about the need to update the English literature syllabus to introduce novels that would actually excite children, with period novels about the upper classes proving repeat offenders in turning young people off reading altogether. Watching The Personal Life of David Copperfield, I got the sense that Iannucci had a similar concern, and that his reverence for the book meant that he knew he needed to tell it in a way that would be exciting and somewhat relevant to today’s younger audiences. 

Rather than building an ensemble around posh white people, he’s instead opted for diverse, anachronistic casting. He hasn’t made any significant changes to how any character appears on page, or added any notable “updating” to make it palatable to modern audiences in terms of story. He’s simply just made the cast reflect modern society, in ways that are only sporadically noticeable (various characters, including David Copperfield, are of different ethnicities to their parents, and this is never once brought up). It’s easy to gloss over while watching, but is an important factor that could help young people fall in love with Dickens – and maybe even anger a few right wing commentators in the process.

If there is a flaw with Iannucci’s take on Copperfield, it is largely due to structure; Dickens’ episodic tome would naturally work better as a miniseries, and here, the co-writer and director opts instead to rush through the entirety of the novel at breakneck pace. It’s inarguably the most energetic adaptation of a Dickens novel to date, and the depictions of these characters aren’t particularly lessened by racing through the story – but it’s hard to not wish there was more time to let these different periods in Copperfield’s life breathe, and for many of the supporting cast members to appear more frequently. Dev Patel is a charming, funny lead, but when paired with Tilda Swinton going slapstick as Betsey Trotwood, or Peter Capaldi’s wonderfully flamboyant turn as Mr. Micawber, you wish the different periods of the character’s life were covered more in depth, to get more of the fantastic performances around him.

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Oct 03, 2019

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