THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD

★★★★

A RHAPSODIC DELIGHT ON TAKING OWNERSHIP OF OUR OWN STORIES

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
29th June 2020

After delivering some of the most biting political satires in film and television over the last decade, it seems an odd choice for beloved writer and director Armando Iannucci to turn his hand to an adaptation of a legendary Charles Dickens novel. In many ways though, 'The Personal History of David Copperfield' contains all the hallmarks of Iannucci's greatest works - rich characters, preposterous circumstances, a strong social consciousness, and his trademark chaotic wit.

The essential premise of the novel remains, David Copperfield (Dev Patel, 'Lion') recounting the events of his life and the unusual characters he meets along the way, but Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell borrow from Dickens' reputation as a public speaker and frame the retelling as a public oration from David on a stage in a theatre before an enraptured audience. As he begins his tale, the parameters of the theatre fall away and the language of the film erupts into a rhapsodic, often triumphant memory play, where David's role as protagonist and narrator mix and merge. This is by far the most visually imaginative and daring work from Iannucci so far, combining his fast and furious immediacy with the splendour of a period piece and a thrilling dose of theatrical flair. From the moment David begins his story, it bursts from the screen with colour and life, moving at a cracking pace and barely taking a moment to breathe. It isn't always successful, but the moments where all the pieces fall into place are often breathtaking.

David is an unusual figure, both the character we are here to observe and the character through which we observe. Life happens to David as much as he participates in it. In many ways, David's everyman quality makes him more of a cypher than an actual character, but the world he inhabits is so rich and his role is so responsive that, much like Alice in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', this becomes an asset rather than a hindrance. It is his honesty and wholesomeness that instructs us how to feel about what we see and hear, and that wholesomeness permeates throughout the film. Class struggle still forms the spine of the story, as is the case with so much of Dickens' work, but Iannucci is just as interested in the process of autobiography and taking stock of one's life, in making sense of the pieces and how they inform who we are. David - and thus Iannucci - are engaging directly with the language of memory, and David's tendency to record the small moments of his life on scraps of paper is reflected in the fragmented, free-flowing nature of the film itself. As we listen to him tell us his story, we see him constructing it before our eyes, seeing which pieces fit and which offer riddles that need to be solved, and his ultimate victory isn't over the hardships he faces but in gaining control of his own story.

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In Iannucci's theatrical approach, the people who inhabit David's life become almost a company of players, a travelling troupe who cluster around him, contributing to his existence but theirs also defined by his. They await their moment to re-enter the story like actors in the wings, and when they do, they must make the most of that moment. The ensemble cast of the film is absolutely extraordinary, but this is as much for their dramaturgic importance as the impressive names in the credits. Iannucci fills the film with the best character actors he can find, so that even the smallest appearance makes an enormous impression. Their impact on David and his life is always significant, and you feel the shockwaves they leave permeating throughout the film. It's also such an ensemble, with every actor in perfect sync with the other, bolstered by the gorgeous improvisational and immediate quality that has become a staple of Iannucci's work.

The most powerful aspect of this insane cast though is the degree to which Iannucci embraces colourblind casting, in a way that lacks any self-awareness and yet feels revelatory. Every actor is perfectly cast and that is all that matters, and the consequence is a shot of crisp fresh air to the period drama. The world of 'The Personal History of David Copperfield' feels diverse and alive and contemporary without sacrificing an ounce of the integrity of its source material, and this story of the ultimate literary everyman suddenly becomes a story for every man, regardless of race or culture. It proves that colourblind casting is not only possible and in no way distracting, but can offer rich rewards for a film and its audience. It also helps that everyone is having an absolute blast playing these ridiculous and sometimes revolting characters, and once again we have the feeling of a company of players, as engaged with one another as they are with the story they are telling. Listing names like Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Paul Whitehouse, Rosalind Eleazar, Gwendoline Christie, Daisy May Cooper, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Morfydd Clark barely covers this vast, wondrous cast, with an enigmatic, charming and often magical Dev Patel as the chief player, delivering one of his best performances to date.

The world of 'The Personal History of David Copperfield' feels diverse and alive and contemporary without sacrificing an ounce of the integrity of its source material...

For the most part, Iannucci is able to keep a tight reign on the scale of the film, much larger than any he has tackled before. Despite employing a wide range of theatrical and cinematic tricks to tell the story, all feel relevant and are employed in imaginative and often thrilling ways. After the intimacy of 'The Thick of It', 'In The Loop', 'Veep' and 'The Death of Stalin', you can see him spreading his wings as a storyteller, stepping outside of the satirically political arena that he has long dominated, but without sacrificing the qualities that make him an engaging storyteller. The film does start to buckle under the weight of its scale and rhythm in the third act, stumbling towards its climax rather than landing triumphantly. There's simply too much story and too many characters to bring everything to a neat conclusion, especially when adapting such an enormous novel to a two-hour film, but in its final moments, much like Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' (another film about taking stock and ownership of one's story), we are offered a small moment of quiet, where a simple image and gesture brings the whole symphony of the film together. Even within the chaos, the film has never lost sight of its intention or sentiment, and thus the chaos sings with meaning.

This has really been a banner year for the period film. We've had Gerwig's spectacular 'Little Women', Autumn de Wilde's wondrous adaptation of 'Emma.', and on television, the bombastic imagination of 'The Great'. Armando Iannucci's 'The Personal History of David Copperfield', even with its flaws, sits beautifully beside them. This film left me giddy with joy, my eyes filled with tears, leaping from my seat with every rapturous surprise and unexpected burst of imagination. It brims over with humanity, humour and heart, and reminds us of the importance of these things for a rich and satisfying life. This is an absolute gem of a film, and one of my favourite of this year so far.

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