Even in the deepest of poverty, Armando Iannucci (“The Death of Stalin”) manages to find a smile.
No, that’s not quite right.
Yes, there is a smile. It’s more of a feeling of joy as the lips curl, remembering a dream of what was, content in a world so full of wrong, that we get it right.
That’s the crux of Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”: the haze of a series of happy memories occupying the adult David Copperfield, played handsomely by the devilish Dev Patel, his wide eyes brimming with a smile all their own.
Based on the Charles Dickens novel, “David Copperfield,” Iannucci explores Copperfield’s beginnings from birth through his mid to late ’20s. Some say that the character of Copperfield is Charles Dickens incarnate, and a young Jairaj Varsani plays Copperfield from that vantage point, taking the brunt of a struggled childhood, as family abandons the wistful dreamer, drifting from one situation to another.
Not all of Copperfield’s abandonment is bad, as Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) takes the young boy into her own family. Her family resides in an idyllic boathouse, painted in a fabulous turquoise that not only contrasts the white, sandy beaches of Yarmouth, but gives the audience a moment of serenity in an otherwise chaotic world.
Similar in plot to Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” the evil Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) would see his rebellious stepson sent away. That distance only serves to strengthen Copperfield, as a human and as a writer as the film transitions from Varsani to Patel.
Throughout young Copperfield’s life is Mr. Micawber, played by Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”) as a misanthropic adult, bent on making his way through life on the charity of others, but is himself a charitable man, an anchor for the aspiring writer.
The transition from childhood into adolescence offers a way for the aristocratic side of good British life to butt its way into our consciousness, as Copperfield revels in a more lavish lifestyle. When his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) takes in the young Copperfield, providing him with a good education and a job on graduation, we get a sense that Copperfield’s life has turned a new leaf.
Even as Copperfield peaks, Iannucci reminds us that we must fall to find our footing. It is in this second half, where we meet a string of new and trying characters that “The Personal History of David Copperfield” feels like it loses some of its momentum.
The story nor characters hamper the momentum, but the feelings the second act conveys does. It is understandable that as Copperfield descends into the depths of his hell, he would feel the despair. Weighed down by the likes of a drunken and charming Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), the conniving Uriah Heep, played with tremendous and devious whit, and dangerous sarcasm by Ben Whishaw that Copperfield’s joy cracks seek to crush our hero. So it is with James Steerforth’s (Aneurin Barnard) entrance into the scene, absconding Copperfield’s time, smothering him into an oblivion.
The pace of the second act changes with an earnest sincerity from Betsey’s lodger, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), who, with pursed lips, wants to make us smile uncontrollably, is as much a wanderer as Mr. Copperfield. Laurie’s Mr. Dick is a doppelganger for Capaldi’s Mr. Micawber, that energy dissipating as we begin the return to reality from within the chaos.
Aside from the cast, the remarkable cinematography from Zac Nicholson is a highlight; the contrasts noted previously mixed with an appropriate use of focus strengthen character moments and emotions. Famed editor Mick Audsley worked with Peter Lambert to create a tight edit.
Iannucci’s inventiveness with Dev Patel’s wild-eyed-abandon creates a well-intentioned film in “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”
- The Personal History of David Copperfield