What the Dickens?! The Personal History of David Copperfield brings the work of Charles Dickens wonderfully to life. It lets Dickens rattle his old bones, shake out the rigor mortis, and drink from the fountain of youth. This zany and truly inspired adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel puts classic literature in the present tense. Armando Ianucci (The Death of Stalin) makes the classic novel a sprightly and snappy affair with a first-rate performance by Dev Patel in the title role. They twist Copperfield like a rubber chicken, playfully — nay, delightfully — imagining it anew.
Patel shines as Dickens’ youthful riches to rags and rags to riches hero. The film zips along as Copperfield recounts his bildungsroman to a theatre of enraptured onlookers. Patel is a great raconteur as his Copperfield recalls his peculiar birth and upbringing. The adult Copperfield roams the halls of his childhood home while his mother (Morfydd Clark) readies to pop him out. His loud and vulgar aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), natters self-indulgently and trades barbs with Pegotty the maid (Daisy May Cooper) while poor Clara Copperfield copes with labour pains. As Copperfield grows into a boy, played by Jairaj Varsani, Patel’s elder version keeps a watchful eye on his younger self while moulding his coming of age tale into a lark for audiences.
This effect of breaking the fourth wall is unexpectedly touching. Copperfield wears his humble origins proudly. Whether living in an upturned boat or in an unruly home plagued by clock-thieving creditors and a benefactor (Peter Capaldi) whose money slips through his fingers, Copperfield’s lived experience guides his work. He honours the eccentrics who inform and inspire him, but never elevates himself above an ordinary man.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is, above all, a celebration of storytelling. Whereas Dickens pats himself on the back for the power of the written word, the film has a gift for gab. Ianucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell (Succession) keep the crispness of Dickens’ Victorian prose intact while imbuing it with contemporary swagger. The ingenuity of the adaptation is that it doesn’t approach David Copperfield directly. There’s no way to capture this sprawling coming-of-age story in a single feature. Rather, it harnesses the spirit of Dickens’ 600-page behemoth. Ianucci and Blackwell focus on the comedy of Copperfield in lieu of narrative fidelity. As a result, Patel’s dapper Copperfield flies through his life’s story with an indelible comedic beat. The effect of honouring the spirit of Dickens’ work does it better justice than most literal adaptations do.
A Colourful Cast
Any good adaptation of a classic novel, moreover, lets contemporary life infiltrate its tale. Ianucci’s Copperfield features a masterstroke in the casting as it imagines the story through modern eyes. Patel doesn’t match the description of David Copperfield in Dickens’ book, but he perfectly embodies his spirit. Few, if any roles, have allowed Patel to show how funny he can be. He carries nearly every frame of The Personal History of David Copperfield whether as a love-struck youngster or an ambitious writer tasting the words of his next sentence, carefully tossing them around his lips before putting them to page. Similarly, the film expands the relevance of Dickens’ tale by mixing races the families of characters. For example, Benedict Wong is utterly hilarious as Mr. Wickfield, Betsy Trotwood’s drunkard bookkeeper, while Rosalind Eleazar plays his daughter Agnes, a model for unrequited love.
The casting of Copperfield goes beyond mere colour-blind assignments, though. On one hand, putting Patel in Copperfield’s shoes draws attention to the dynamics of race, class, and privilege that exist today. The period of The Personal History of David Copperfield remains true to the era, yet the casting inserts within the tale the lives on which the English gentry made their fortunes. On the other hand, the film’s diverse cast asks audiences to consider how questions of access, representation, and relevance permeate the stories we tell. It’s the first time that a Dickens’ work has actually looked like the audience watching it on screen. Yet it’s every bit as true to the prose as it could be.
David Copperfield Remains Timeless
Even the casting of Morfydd Clark in a dual role as Copperfield’s mother and as his love interest Daisy speaks to the manner in which Ianucci tackles the power of storytelling through the actors’ bodies. Clark’s reappearance later in the film, nearly unrecognizable under rag-doll curls, evokes a literal representation of the sentiment that every boy wants to marry his mother. In the face of Agnes’s much better fit for Copperfield, Daisy’s ditsy yet uncanny resemblance to Clara Copperfield illustrates how these characters are apparitions of David’s imagination.
As is always the case with an Ianucci film, no role is too small. Swinton is a laugh-out loud hoot as Betsey Trotwood, stealing every scene with an adept juggling act of physical comedy and deadpan line readings. Capaldi matches her beat, relishing the manner in which Ianucci’s grasp for Dickens’ language asks actors to set their tongues a-sprinting. Editors Mick Audsley and Peter Lambert breezily harness the comedic tempo of the film into a smartly paced adventure. As talky as Copperfield is, it never sags. The over-caffeinated energy of the language allows the film to cover as much scope of Copperfield’s story as possible. The actors race through decades without aging a year, further evoking the timelessness of the tale. From memorable performances by Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie to a skin-crawlingly creepy Ben Whishaw, everyone elevates Copperfield.
In every way, shape, and form, this adaptation is David Copperfield unlike you’ve seen him before. What an effervescently delightful film! What fun!
The Personal History of David Copperfield is now in theatres.
For a second take on the film, watch Jason Gorber’s video review from TIFF.