Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield

It’s been a while since I’ve read Dickens, but Armando Iannucci’s fast-paced version of the novelist’s warmest tale feels to me more faithful to the spirit of Dickens than the usual stuffy cinematic adaptations (almost all of which are Great Expectations, it often seems). Though the director eschews the profanity that hallmarks his work, his usual slapstick mood prevails, bringing out the sense of the absurd that Dickens’ writing so vividly conveyed about English life in the mid-19th century. In that regard, the movie’s already noted “color-blind” approach—David is played by Dev Patel, and other characters are portrayed by actors of varying ethnic persuasions that have nothing to do with “white”—doesn’t park itself in the mind as you’re watching, since the theatrical aspects of the story are so pronounced in the first place. In the opening scene, in fact, David lectures a large audience in an auditorium about his success as an author, a means of making the first-person narrative more immediate. 

But, of course, the inventive casting—another Iannucci trait—also intensifies Dickens’ theme about the struggle to escape one’s destiny as defined by birth and class. Some viewers will likely bristle at this presentation, which implies that racism has nothing to do with the oppression we see since there are Asian actors playing gentlemen and black women playing ladies, but as the movie progresses the socioeconomic particulars take on a more universal meaning: Class may not trump racial discrimination, but its destructive effects are universal. 

Iannucci’s best move is to make David’s coming-of-age as an artist dependent on his self-illumination as a humanist. Having grown up not only poor but abused, David nevertheless sees the good in everyone, no matter how small a portion of the respective personality it commands. Peter Capaldi’s debt-defeated Mr. Micawber and Ben Whishaw’s quisling Uriah Heep, two of the more pathetic characters in an over-abundant cast, are not as off-putting as you remember them from the book (or past film versions), and while purists may find that unfortunate, it jibes with Iannucci’s overall purposes, which is to make a classic entertainment that also enlightens as it delights. The problem with this approach is that the story, per Dickens’ methodology, is overstuffed and so much happens at such a breakneck pace that certain subplots get shoved around like commuters on a packed subway. I never quite got why the certifiably demented Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) was so obsessed with the death of King Charles I, and the tragedy that befalls the impoverished inhabitants of the stranded boat where David takes up temporary residence lacks the proper measure of miserableness. 

And while Patel never comes into his own as a fully fleshed-out hero, probably because he has to compete with the likes of Tilda Swinton as his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood, his cheery magnanimity is the right fit for a writer of David’s temperament. Whenever he jots down his thoughts, all of which will eventually gel into a best-selling memoir, there’s a sense of wonder at his own ability to channel those wild emotions into words. Having recently seen another liberal take on a classic novel about a writer, Martin Eden, I was struck by how much mileage Iannucci got out of just showing the act of putting pen to paper. It gave me goosebumps.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cinema Qualite Shinjuku (03-3352-5645).

The Personal History of David Copperfield home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Dickensian Pictures LLC and Channel Four Television Corporation

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