The Student
The Personal History of David Copperfield
by Tom Hadman, 11/02/20

Am I the hero of my own story? This is the question Dev Patel’s David Copperfield asks himself, in Armando Iannucci’s gloriously quirky and entertaining rendition of Dickens’ classic tale. At once both respecting and reinventing the novel from which it takes its inspiration, Iannucci seamlessly blends the absurdly comedic, enthrallingly dramatic, and touchingly intimate elements of his source into a heartfelt, feel good production full of joie de vivre.

At the centre of this charming picture lies a tale of self-discovery, as we follow the life of David Copperfield from birth through to middle age, witnessing the extraordinary highs and lows of his life along the way. Iannucci structures the narrative through telling events retrospectively from the perspective of a middle-aged Copperfield, neatly separated into smaller chapters signified by handwritten headings that reflect the film’s literary origins.

In witnessing Copperfield’s struggle to make a name for himself (in many cases, literally – he is referred to as David, Dodie, Trotwood, Daisy, and even the Biting Boy by those he meets), Iannucci highlights not only Dickens’ knack for wonderfully concocted characters and stories, but also his desire to show the bleak and at times unforgiving world of Victorian Britain. Perhaps it is regrettable that Iannucci chooses not to focus more on the destitute horrors that lurk within Dickens’ masterpiece. Yet this isn’t the work’s purpose, and the decision to use them for comedic purposes works well with the film’s light hearted tone, whilst not forgetting that the dark aspects of the tale do exist.

Joining Copperfield on his journey are an array of superbly written and eccentric characters, perfectly casted by Sarah Crowe (who has deservedly received a BAFTA nomination for her work). The decision to cast with colour-blind inclusivity enhances the film’s quality immeasurably, by favouring the truly best actor for the part without regard for any agenda beyond getting the best character. From Benedict Wong’s excellent portrayal of the alcoholic Mr Wickfield, to Rosalind Eleazer’s equally as impressive performance as Agnes, Crowe surrounds Patel with a diverse cast. Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi deliver expectedly magnificent performances as Mr Dick and Mr Micawber. Best of all is Patel however, standing out amidst a cast of giants, and demonstrating his clear strength as a leading man.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson also does an excellent job, in particular in the film’s early scenes of childhood. His use of wide-angle lenses perfectly captures a child’s sense of wonder at their surroundings, seen in the wonderfully colourful recollections of Copperfield’s childhood spent living in a capsized boat converted into a house. Conversely, this method helps emphasise the moments of horror that intersperse those of joy in Copperfield’s childhood. Darren Boyd’s terrifying Edward Murdstone is made more so by angles that emphasise the characters height in comparison to Copperfield’s, and in turn his coldly intimidating presence.

Coming from a work that has seen countless screen adaptations, and will no doubt see many more, Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is a wonderfully unique and entertaining interpretation. Hilarious at points, and at others tensely emotional, Iannucci captures the true essence of this masterpiece, and in doing so helps bring the magic of Dickens to a new generation of filmgoers.

Image: Walt Disney Television via Flickr