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The Personal History of David Copperfield

David Copperfield

Score extra points if you thought it was about the magician, instead.

dir: Armando Iannucci


It’s not the first time the great Armando Iannucci has made a film set in a bygone era – The Death of Stalin was very much a period piece – but this is more meat and potatoes costumes, top hats and bustles kind of stuff. There haven’t been an abundance of adaptations of David Copperfield, at least not recently, not like bloody Great Expectations which has more versions than Spider-Man. This is a fairly radical retelling of the story, only because it’s such a long book, and lots of it is probably dull.

Iannucci and his actors here commit to making this as upbeat and propulsive as possible, which isn’t that radical, but when you consider that most adaptations of Dickens’ work is usually so painstakingly put together for BBC Quality Television Series that paint itself tears itself from walls in the vicinity of televisions that play them, just to end their misery, maybe it’s a blessed relief.

The production also goes out of its way to cast actors of different backgrounds from the ones one would expect for such a telling, since it’s usually a Whites Only kind of affair in Dickens’ stuff. Especially the lead, being played by Dev Patel, with charm and energy turned up to 11, but plenty of other roles too. It’s refreshing, in a way, because while it might seem anachronistic to tell a story set in the 1800s with so many people from diverse backgrounds, it doesn’t at all change the fact that a) Britain is one of the most ridiculously, multiculturally diverse places on the planet because of its legacy of colonialism no matter what fuckwits like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage would prefer and b) Dickens’ work has always been about class warfare and the threat of poverty, and people desperately trying to rise above their station in life.

Let’s not sugarcoat anything, though: It’s doubtful Dickens himself would have approved of this movie, considering how racist the fucker was.

But we don’t need to cancel him or his very enjoyable books; we can enhance them for our storytelling purposes in ways that reflect contemporary Britain, as well as acknowledging the perils of the past.

David, as narrator and participant in his own story, manages to be present at his own birth, which is a leaf out of Tristam Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, and it’s not the only nod to that Michael Winterbottom movie. There are many scenes where the so-called fourth wall is torn right through, but it’s not in order to talk directly to the audience (even though that’s exactly what they’re doing). He, being the main character, is also the one writing the story of his life, right in front of us.

Born to some woman, with the help of the redoubtable Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper), David is the latest in a long line of Dickensian protagonists who will have a whole bunch of bad stuff happen to him before some semblance of peace can be garnered in the end. Sure, he has an abusive step-father who forces him to work in a bottle factory, but he also has that abusive step-father’s sister (Gwendolyn Christie) to contend with, and she’s even more inhumane.

His, being David Copperfield’s, strength is in his intelligence, his wit, and his determination to hold onto his name no matter the cost or the missed opportunity. He has a crazy aunt (Tilda Swinton, divine as always) who’s deathly afraid of donkeys, for some absurd reason, and she has a partner / boarder who’s even nuttier than she is, being Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). And he’s afraid of stuff even dumber than donkeys.

Dick is fixated on King Charles the First, who, if you didn’t know, had his head lopped off back in the day for having the audacity to believe that kings should be able to do whatever the fuck they want. Also there was some kind of civil war, but that hardly matters for our purposes. The main thing is this guy here has a constant roiling tempest of agitating thoughts bumping around in his head, which makes it hard to do much of anything else. Dick is convinced that he somehow is receiving these thoughts that otherwise would have cycled around within the skull of the unfortunate king who lost his noggin. Now, in the long tradition of stories treating mental illness as a joke, it’s not like any of this time spent focusing on Dick is meant to make him anything more of a character or more relatable. He exists only so that Copperfield can find some sort of solution for him so that he can live a somewhat less encumbered life.

Copperfield’s solution is to get Dick to write down these thoughts of Charles’s on pieces of paper, attach the pieces of paper to the tail of a kite, and then fly the kite. I wonder if he bulk bills for Medicare for his counselling services or whether he’s paid with ducks or donkeys or something else in trade.

It’s not too cynical to mention that all the characters, odd as they are, and oddly named as they are, are all here to give David Copperfield something to overcome, someone to help or be helped by, or someone to love, because this is a story about stories, a film about Iannucci’s love not just of David Copperfield the book or the character, but his love of Charles Dickens writing in totality. It’s a story about a writer who is writing his story as he goes, right before our eyes. On another level it’s about the living of one’s own life as the story we would like to tell about ourselves and the people around us, and it’s a very seductive idea. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that awful things randomly happen to people, whether it’s the death of loved ones, the cruelty of people who have nothing better to do, or just the chaos of existence. But in a story everything is given meaning, and purpose, and everything that happens here has to feed into a deeper narrative of a decent person overcoming stuff and eventually surmounting prejudices and poverty in order to become the gentleman that he “deserves” to be, not because of lineage or family ties, but because he’s a decent chap who thinks of others, unlike all the particular oddballs and villains he has to contend with.

So Copperfield scrapes together the best of an education that he can manage, and it’s a natural compliment to his innate qualities and intelligence, such that if he were to get some meaningful position in some job, as if to raise his status to, I dunno, the middle class or something, it’s okay, right and proper. But when the odious Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) does the same thing, as in, tries to jump a class from untouchable scum to person with marginal money and power over otherwise, obviously it’s to emphasise that not everyone should deserve to raise their status in society. Only the good and virtuous, the talented, the considerate “should” be allowed to do it; definitely not people like Heep.

What a name. Uriah Heep. In an alternate universe, Iannucci gets to make a film about him, so that he has his time to shine. Still, despite his glorious odiousness, he is the dark side version of upward mobility – someone who wants it just to be cruel to his betters, or to the people who didn’t acknowledge his existence when he was on the way up. Not like out David, though, no. He just wants money and power to do good (we presume, I mean, he is the hero of his own story) for the people around him, and to win the hand of fair…?

Who, exactly? Who is the one he should be doing all this for? Is it the adored Dora Spenlow, who actually tells David at one point that she shouldn’t really exist in the story, and that he should write her out of it, or the slightly more “real” Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar), with whom he could have more of a future?

Only time and authorial conceit will tell.

Iannucci, being exceedingly clever and a pretty humane chap, does much better than I expected with this, and in Dev Patel perfectly matches tone with charm, in something so much lighter and springier than the kind of stuff Iannucci is famous for. His brutal tv shows like The Thick of It, Veep or Avenue Five have an overwhelmingly toxic view of humanity at worst, or a pervasive cynicism about human stupidity or selfishness at best. The Death of Stalin, dealing as it did with some of the worst people humanity has ever created, matched humour with a deep despair as to what people put up with in the pursuit of just surviving within a brutal totalitarian system.

None of that baggage is present here. It’s almost like Iannucci took a deep breath and actively wanted to make something that impressed us with its life-affirming themes, made us laugh not at people’s monstrousness but at their very human foibles, and brought us along with an optimist who trusts that if he just keeps believing, and hoping, and helping people, that he’ll get by and thrive.

And he might just do that, just like the rest of us. Even if some of the performances verge on the edge of panto, there’s a charm and an energy to their time with us that we can let it slide, just a tad. Viewing the less savory aspects of some of the people in our lives with charity or forgiveness, or transforming it into farce in order to take some of the edge off of it, like Dickens perhaps did with the characters who most resemble his deadbeat dad, isn’t much of a sin, if it is one. If art can’t transmute some of the shittier parts of our lives into something else, then what good is it or they anyway?

Not Uriah Heep, though, fuck that guy. He can go straight to hell.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Personal History of David Copperfield, but I have to warn that I watched it with two other people; my partner saying that it was the most tedious thing she’d ever seen in her life, and my daughter who thought it was “meh”. So if this was a democracy, it wouldn’t get very far, would it.

8 times I am so completely fucking sick of, but not yet because of, the goddamn virus out of 10

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” – ever so punctual – The Personal History of David Copperfield.