Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield: unusual perspectives and joyful storytelling

January has been a good month for cinematic adaptations of classic fiction. I caught Little Women after Christmas and was wowed by the well told and superbly watchable tale of the March family siblings.

Armando Iannucci reaches back twenty years earlier and picks up David Copperfield, the somewhat autobiographical eighth novel by Charles Dickens. There’s no one right way to tell a story. While Iannucci plays fast and loose with convention right from the early scenes when Copperfield is at home witnessing his own birth, the novel approach never unsettles or distracts from the tale.

The Personal History of David Copperfield sees Copperfield banished from his home by his mother’s new husband. The lad slaves away in a bottling factory, boards with the ever-expanding Micawber family, and falls on the mercy of his Great Aunt Betsey Trotwood. Along the way he meets the at first cloying then devious Uriah Heep.

Dev Patel captures a maturing David Copperfield who is feeling his way through a circus of relatives, landlords and workplaces. Jairaj Varsani plays Copperfield as a young boy.

This topsy-turvy journey into adulthood is full of unusual perspectives. There are strong and well-drawn characters around every corner: happy-go-lucky chancer Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his fecund wife (played with a heart-warming twinkle by Bronagh Gallagher), ever-tipsy Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), gloriously eccentric Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) drafting from being to becoming quite fond of young Copperfield, kite-flying delusional Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie).

While Dickens was a cracking storyteller, Iannucci can make a script sing, and with this talented (and deliberately colour-blind) cast he imagines up two hours of joyful, free-flowing, absurd entertainment. Little Woman and The Personal History of David Copperfield are leagues above flimsy dross like Downton Abbey (admittedly not derived from a novel).

The Personal History of David Copperfield continues to be screened in most local cinemas.

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