The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)
Written by Simon Blackwell & Armando Iannucci
Directed by Armando Iannucci
David Copperfield is a dense 600 page+ novel and adapting it to the screen is a daunting task. It has been adapted to television and film fourteen times ranging from ninety-minute movies to thirteen-part mini-series. When you take anything from page to screen, you must make cuts and take artistic liberties. The focus should be on preserving the themes and tone of the work, and if certain scenes have to go, that’s okay. British filmmaker Armando Iannucci manages to pull off this feat in two hours by reinventing the text and providing a thematic framework through bookends. The result is one of the most genuinely joyous celebrations of life’s complexities and coincidences that I have seen in a long time.
The movie opens with adult David Copperfield (Dev Patel) on stage, giving a reading of his life’s story. The curtains open behind him to reveal his childhood home of Blunderstone. Copperfield turns around and walks through this projection into the actual estate, and he narrates his birth. Iannucci immediately sets a tone of inventive & silly storytelling. The characters speak the word of author Charles Dickens but deliver their lines in a manner that matches with modern comedic sensibilities. Copperfield’s mother remarries to Edward Murdstone, and the boy is sent to live with housekeeper Peggety in Yarmouth, where he lives in an upside boat turned house and revels in the life of working-class people whom he has an affinity to.
Iannucci chooses to transition Copperfield back to his home by having the cruel Murdstone reach through the ceiling of the boathouse, suddenly transforming into a paper diorama, then becoming a drawing of the child’s that his stepfather is crumpling up and discouraging. Throughout the film, Iannucci chooses to transition through moments of the protagonist’s life in cinematic ways that serve to both rush past portions of the book for time’s sake but also to remind us we are in a performed story. There’s a sense that the filmmakers are spryly refashioning this classic novel, continually thinking, “What is a more interesting way to see this moment?”
The cast is a collection of actors performing at the top of their game. Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie play Aunt Betsy and Mr. Dick, respectively, and they are the heart and soul of the picture. They become Copperfield’s reminder that loving family, though eccentric and complicated, do exist and embrace him unconditionally as he does to them. The moment when Copperfield finds a connection with Mr. Dick, their shared habit of jotting down passing turns of phrases that come into their heads, is beautifully played by both actors. Copperfield embraces the mad joy of it all, charging through the drawing-room into the field with Mr. Dick to fly his kite of scrawls, letting his discontent float away into the blue sky.
Peter Capaldi plays Mr. Micawber, a man constantly under the thumb of debtors but always looking for the bright side, never afraid to ask for a bit of coin or feign academic bonafides to get a job tutoring. Capaldi delivers some fantastic physical and language comedy. There is a moment where he actually layers accents playing a Cockney man trying to sound like a refined, educated scholar, and it is a moment of acting genius. If you are familiar with Capaldi from his previous work with Iannucci in the Thick of It or on Doctor Who, you will be surprised by the difference in this role.
Ben Whishaw plays the antagonist Uriah Heap and does with a dimwitted menace. Heap is played for comic purposes but then takes a subtle menacing turn during tea in his home with Copperfield. Because of the truncated story, you get enough of Heap as an obstacle, but he never becomes the central villain. The same can be said of Murdstone. Iannucci isn’t so interested in setting up a major external conflict and resolution with an antagonist as he is presenting the full beauty and ugliness of life. David Copperfield is a tragedy and comedy all wrapped up and twisted together. There is such momentum in this story from the first scenes all the way to the very end. This is the sweeping epic summer blockbuster that I wanted this year, and I am so happy I got to see.