Does the name David Copperfield ring any bells? Nope, not the illusionist but the fictional character. Yes? Then you’ve probably read the same-named novel by Charles Dickens or watched any adaptation of that book.
No? No worries. You will find out soon who Mr. Copperfield was thanks to director Armando Iannucci (“The Death of Stalin”, “In the Loop”) who brings his story to the big screen in a lovely, enjoyable and authentic way.
Coming from a poor background, young David Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani) is living with his single mother (Morfydd Clark) and their housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) in the small house in Blunderstone.
They might not have much but David is enjoying his life. However, when Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), a violent and very strict man, and his even worse sister Jane Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie) are joining the family as David’s stepfather and step-aunt, life is getting darker.
He has to endure physical and mental abuse by the hands of Murdstone, can’t spend time with his mother nor with the housekeeper and is being sent away to a bottling factory that’s owned by Murdstone.
When he’s not working in the factory, he’s living with the silly, eccentric but also very charming Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Micawber (Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher). They’re treating him like he is their child.
Many years pass by. Sadly, life hasn’t become any easier and after having to deal with an incredible loss, David (Dev Patel) decides that he’s done working in the factory.
He can’t return home due to Mr. Murdstone so he goes to his peculiar and nutty aunt (Tilda Swinton) and the even crazier cousin (Hugh Laurie). This is the beginning of a better and happier life: David meets the love of his life Dora (Morfydd Clark), makes new friends at the boarding school with whom he has fun nights out and also has a much more luxurious life in the heart of London.
However, dark clouds are hanging above head again after a tragedy strikes his family and after being betrayed by both friend and foe. Once poor, always poor? Let’s find out.
Iannucci mentioned that the original novel about Copperfield felt so cinematic, funny, experimental and modern that he wanted to make a big-screen adaptation from it. Together with writer Simon Blackwell (“Trying Again”, “Peep Show”), with whom he made “The Thick of It” and “Veep”, he brought this delightful and beautiful story charismatic to life.
According to Iannucci, Patel was the actor he had in mind as the adult Copperfield and after watching “The Personal History of David Copperfield”, we understand why. Patel (“Lion”, “The Road Within”) is extremely charming, full of emotions and a real joy.
However, he’s not the only one who brings Copperfield vividly to life. Young actor Varsani, who makes his film debut with this movie, is wonderful, gorgeous and just full of energy as the young master Copperfield. His acting performance is very contagious.
That “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is going to be a wild emotional rollercoaster is visible from the very first scenes. David’s mom is going into labour while aunt Betsey, Peggotty, and other friends are coming over to help her. That scene is being dominated by three strong women.
Thanks to Clark’s (“Saint Maud”, “Crawl”) emotional and captivating performance we feel that going into labour is no joy and extremely painful. The captivating performance will continue throughout the movie: Whether it’s as the loving, carrying and joyful mother or as the defenceless, repressed and humiliated bride-to-be.
Cooper (“This Country (TV)”, “Kerry”), brings even more joy, wittiness and humour to that scene and the movie in general as the clumsy, happy and caring housekeeper. Swinton (“The Dead Don’t Die”, “The Souvenir”) and her great performance as Betsey are proving that every person in David’s life is unusual, crazy but loving.
The list of great actors in this film just keeps on growing. Peter Capaldi (“Dr. Who (TV)”, “Paddington 2”) is immensely fascinating and witty as Mr. Micawber and by his side, we see the delightfully Bronagh Gallagher (“A Bump Along the Way”, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”) as Mrs. Micawber who loves both her husband and David unconditionally. The scenes between Patel, Capaldi, and Gallagher are such a treat to watch.
Director Iannucci mentioned that Mr. Dick was the first character in a novel that sadly had to deal with mental health and thanks to Laurie’s (“Veep (TV)”, “Dr. House (TV)”) performance we got to know that confused, comical but also the sad side of Dick.
It’s not all darkness in Copperfield’s life as he encounters many lovely women. We see the beautiful Clark (yep, that same Clark who plays Copperfield’s young mom) on one hand as the sweet Dora who’s a little bit naive and clumsy and on the other hand, there’s the enchanting Eleazar (“Deep Water (TV)”, “Harlots (TV)”) as the more mature and determined Agnes, a woman looking for love.
We need to mention the superb performances from both Ben Wishaw (“The Lobster”, “Paddington”) as the vindictive and underhanded “friend” Uriah Heep and Benedict Wong (“Doctor Strange”, “Avengers: Infinity War”) as the alcohol lover and caring father of Agnes.
Iannucci wanted to use as little special effects as possible and that’s very clear in the way this movie was shot. The film came very smoothly, elegant and fascinating to the screen. While there’s a place for some violence, betrayal and darkness (especially at the beginning and towards the middle), “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is mostly filled with brightness, lively characters, love, and friendship.
In 2017 it was “Breathe”, in 2018 it was “Widows” and this year it’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”. All three very different but stunning openings movies of the BFI Film Festival London.
Tricia Tuttle and her programming team know what to choose for their festival because again they are bang on. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a dreamy, elegant, amusing, and delightful film.
(This review was written as part of the BFI Film Festival London coverage)
24th January 2020
THE QUICK SELL
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens.