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Cinema

Fun and likeable and forgettable: The Personal History of David Copperfield reviewed

Armando Iannucci's adaptation is 600 pages of Dickens squashed into just under two hours so it feels more like CliffNotes than the real deal

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

The Personal History of David Copperfield

PG, Nationwide

Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield is a romp told at a lick, and while it’s fun and likeable with fantastic casting — Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick is especially sublime — it is not particularly immersive or memorable. It’s 600 pages squashed into just under two hours so it’s bound to feel more like CliffsNotes (or SparkNotes or York Notes, depending on your era), rather than the real deal. I have nothing against CliffsNotes (or similar), by the way — I loved its synopsis of The Mayor of Casterbridge so much at A-level that I never bothered with the actual book; I did OK — but you still know you are getting the bare bones rather than anything richer or deeper.

Here, Dev Patel stars as Copperfield and there is colour-blind casting throughout, which is excellent, particularly as it will infuriate some people (i.e. the white ones who are still determined to hang on to everything). Iannucci directs, and also co-wrote with Simon Blackwell, his collaborator on The Thick of It and Veep, but this has less smarts that you might imagine. Mostly, it’s faithful, in its truncated way, with the occasional visual conceit thrown in.


For instance, we are introduced to Copperfield at a lectern in front of a rapt crowd as he reads from his autobiography, then the film bursts through the backdrop of the stage and rewinds to the circumstances of his birth. On another occasion, a giant hand reaches down to swiftly move Copperfield from one place to another in a way that says: yes, we know we are doing this at a lick. So that is smart as well as meta — fair play — but incidents and characters come and go so furiously fast it is hard to care. Or feel involved. And it is sometimes confusing. Peggotty was there a minute ago but now she is here? How so? You do need more than gimmicks.

The novel follows the familiar Dickens pattern as a young man sets out to make his way in the world and it ticks most of the narrative boxes as Copperfield experiences unhappy times (his violent stepfather; that awful factory; the horrible school) and happier ones. These include the upside-down boat at Yarmouth and his friendship with Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), the ‘constantly impoverished but always optimistic gentleman who boards David during his stay in London’. (I took that from CliffsNotes; so useful.) The casting is inspired, truly. Of course Daisy May Cooper is Peggotty. Of course. Also, we have Ben Whishaw as your ’umble servant, Uriah Heep, Tilda Swinton as donkey-bashing Betsey Trotwood, Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth and the wonderful Nikki Amuka-Bird as Steerforth’s mother. (For those who will pathetically ask how Steerforth can be white when his mother is black I put it to you that it does not matter. This is all a fiction!) Part of the fun here is just clocking who is who when they truck up. Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone)! Paul Whitehouse (Mr Peggotty)! But it’s Laurie, as childlike Mr Dick, who steals the show. Mr Dick was the only character I felt anything for and my heart lifted whenever he entered, and sank whenever he exited. It is also Laurie in a part that doesn’t demand one of his weird and improbable American accents. Which is a relief.

I said it ticks most of the boxes, but there are a few it doesn’t. Barkis has been excised. Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark) is left up in the air as her ending has also been excised, but then her ending is tragic, and this is a breezy soap that doesn’t want to go anywhere too dark. As for Patel, he is delightful as Copperfield as far as this Copperfield goes, which isn’t very far. He’s more a placeholder than a full-blooded character, there to lead us through the story rather than become it. Anything the novel has to say about class or injustice has been wholly lost.


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