Simon Dillon reviews this delightful film from start to finish
The main talking point of Armando Ianucci's adaptation of David Copperfield seems to be the multi-racial casting, in that it throws down a clear challenge to the (actually often historically inaccurate) all-white casting in many a period drama. However, as far as I'm concerned, the most important thing to report about The Personal History of David Copperfield is that it is an absolute delight from start to finish.
I shan't bother to reiterate the plot of the Dickens classic, suffice to say it involves his usual preoccupations of a likeable protagonist falling from riches into poverty and back and forth again. There's a colourful cast of wonderfully eccentric characters, a hefty quota of misadventure, wit, social comment, and a touch of romance. The source material is both respected and (where appropriate) reinvented, and if I had a criticism of this film at all, it would be that sometimes the plot rattles along just a bit too quickly, skimming over moments I would have liked to linger on a bit more.
However, Ianucci's offbeat approach is inspired, in both screenplay (along with co-writer Simon Blackwell) and direction. Regarding the latter, the film opens wonderfully, in a theatre, with David Copperfield addressing the audience to determine whether he is "the hero of my own story", before he charges through a backdrop into an East Anglia landscape, to be present at his own birth. These kinds of cinematic tricks often risk being too clever for their own good, but here they work wonderfully, as sets and locations fall away, memories are projected onto walls, and handwritten chapter headings crop up at regular intervals. One particular moment I loved involved childhood joy in an inverted boat house giving way to grim reality as the brutal character of Murdstone is introduced via a scary giant hand.
As for the cast, they are all wonderful. Dev Patel is effortlessly charming in the lead, and the supporting cast includes wonderful turns from the likes of Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw (as a particularly odious Uriah Heep, one of Dickens's most skin-crawling creations). Kudos are also in order for Cristina Casali's vivid and atmospheric production design, Zac Nicholson's immaculate cinematography, and I also want to add a special mention for Christopher Willis's wonderfully resonant score.
In short, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an exhilarating reinvention of a classic text. Packed with quirky, laugh-out-loud moments, the absorbing narrative doesn't shy away from the melancholy side of the tale either, but it remains hugely entertaining throughout. Highly recommended.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
View all articles by Simon Dillon