To get this out of the way: how much did I like The Personal History of David Copperfield? Well, fifteen minutes into the film I felt like I had been enveloped in a warm hug, and I wanted to return the favour and hug back the film and everyone involved in it. Who would have thought that the man who brought us foul-mouthed political enforcer Malcolm Tucker and the pitch-black political satire The Death of Stalin would also be the writer-director of one of the most delightful films of recent years?
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield won’t be the right film for anyone who’s looking for a clear, fully coherent, well-structured story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Like the chits of paper that adult David (a winning Dev Patel) collates, each containing an observation of his, a sketch of a character or even just a turn of phrase he came up with and liked well enough to keep, the film’s story is a collage of vignettes and moments. What structure it has is provided less by plot than by the wonderfully bizarre cast of characters Copperfield collects as he grows from a boy to a man: the constantly cheerful, increasingly debt-ridden Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi, in a role that couldn’t be further from his Malcolm Tucker), the eccentric, combative Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton, rarely funnier), the unctuous Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, and come on, you can’t describe Heep without using the word ‘unctuous’!), or the deranged yet amiable Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), and many more that serve as an impressive illustration of the term ‘Dickensian’.
The fragmentary nature of Iannucci’s adaptation is amplified by its sheer pace – the film is a far cry from the more unhurried miniseries format that the BBC is so fond of – and it could easily feel rushed and hyperactive, but the story is held together by the recurring cast of characters and by a cohesive style that is a far cry from what the majority of costume dramas and adaptations of canonical literature look like. Iannucci embraces the theatricality of the material: locations bleed into one another, characters are swept directly from one scene into the next, as all of it is the stage on which David tells his story. The Personal History of David Copperfield has little use for the narrowly defined naturalism of so many adaptations, and Iannucci understands that Dickens’ prose and his characters are rarely purely realistic, even if they reflect the social reality of the time. Instead, the film finds fitting ways to evoke a heightened version of Dickens’ England that, while appealing to look at, does not turn the past into a tourist destination.
It is likely that Iannucci’s approach strips Dickens’ material of some of its aspects. By leaning into the humour, his film is relatively light on pathos, even if it has moments of surprising poignancy, and its social critique remains relatively slim and unspecific. We witness families being dragged to debtor’s prison and see the homeless lining the streets of London, but there is little social context to go on. While The Personal History of David Copperfield reminds us frequently of the effects of poverty in Victorian England, this does not result in a more comprehensive, possibly even timely critique. Arguably, there is more social commentary in the film’s thoroughly colour-blind casting (which works beautifully, I thought) than in what it says about rigid class structures, child exploitation or poverty.
Nonetheless, the film we did end up with argues convincingly, at least to my mind, that the act of adaptation, especially into the medium of film, must be an act of selection, and that no adaptation can be all things to all people. Iannucci’s take on David Copperfield isn’t all that Dickens’ novel is or can be, it isn’t exhaustive, nor does it strive to be. It is, however, a joyous celebration of the life of a man who, having lost what little family he had, grows up making for himself a surrogate family of his own choice. It shows how a boy who is a character in other people’s stories grows up to become, if not the hero of his own life, then at least the one to tell his own story – and what a wondrous, curious, exhilarating story it is.