The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)
Director: Armando Ianucci
Screenwriters: Simon Blackwell, Armando Ianucci
Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Ranveer Jaiswal, Daisy May Cooper, Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie
The idea of the departed looking down upon the world of the living with confusion and exasperation has been a source of whimsy for many. If indeed the dead do meet up for regular tete a tete, I wonder if the banes of the English classroom, Mr Shakespere and Mr Dickens, meet up on the regular to compare notes. Do they indeed peer over the clouds to witness the groans and screams of school children as their dusty tomes are slammed on to the desks. Credit must go to the British Education Board for their admirable efforts to create such heated animosity aimed at two of our nation’s greatest wordsmiths. Still, there is a small part of me that feels that one of these particular bastards, Charles Dickens, had it coming. I can still feel the exquisite pain of enduring hours of the dragging monotone of my classmates tripping over the pages of description about how Joe Gargery pours gravy. I was glad to be shot of him once I had fulfilled my curricular obligations.
However, as I have frequently rediscovered time and time again (like a repeated slap in the face), the real learning starts after school. In a pleasant turn of events, Armando Ianucci turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining teacher.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise; the man is an award-winning genius and a pillar of smart British comedy with the likes of ‘The Thick of It’,’I’m Alan Partridge’ and The Death of Stalin under his belt. If only he could have been transported to my Year 8 English Class so that his gift for political satire could have lifted out Dickens’ intended hilarious and cutting social commentary and made it relevant to a classroom of children coming to grips with their coming adulthood in the 21st century. In The Personal History of David Copperfield, he effectively combines the comedy and the drama of the novel itself; one that stirs up huge empathy for Charles Dickens, this particular story being one of the most famous semi-autobiographical works ever written, the piece illustrating the great pains of Dickens’ own youth.
To state the obvious, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a story about growing up, but moreso it’s about the importance of being loved. The beginning of David Copperfield’s life is defined by happiness and utter wonderment until his world is turned upside down by his mother’s (Morfydd Clark’s) remarriage to the cold and wicked Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who sends him away to a miserable existence in London at the first chance he gets. Eventually David escapes from the poverty and drudgery imposed upon him by his step-father and flourishes. Whilst enjoying better times, he tries desperately to cover-up his tragic past, self-conscious of the good opinions of his new high-society friends. He eventually learns the futility of his charade, discovering that the darkest moments of his childhood are in fact the origins of his greatest strength: his compassion.
The film has an incredibly strong start with David Copperfield’s early life. Ranveer Jaiswal is delightfully adorable as the young Copperfield – an incredible feat as young David has quite the propensity to philosophise which would be quite irritating from a less talented child actor. He manages to invoke surprised quirks of half-smiles, transporting us to the innocence of our own childhoods through his barely contained awe over the simple joys of his life. This incredibly sweet beginning paves the way for heartbreak as our illusion of narrative security is torn away by the introduction of Mr Murdstone. His first appearance is dread-filled, which is deepened twice-fold once he’s joined by his spinster sister (a short appearance by a haughty and cold Gwendoline Christie). Dread turns to pure hatred as we witness the inexcusable abuse Murdstone rains down upon David, finally resulting in David’s devastating separation from his mother. Dev Patel channels the audience’s rage as he sabotages his evil step-father’s bottle factory at the news of his Mother’s death.
Unfortunately, the film loses its pace after the halfway point, which inflicts the whole movie with an overall muddled narrative. There are still some dramatic thrills and comedic moments, but they are diluted and weak amidst this dull second half. Characters introduced within this portion don’t only lack the charisma of their earlier counterparts, but the likes of Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark again in a weird incestuous turn) were tedious beyond their original narrative purpose, lacking any entertainment value. The attempts to establish this film as a unique adaptation simply work to further confound the audience as the narrative unpredictably hops between hypothesis and actuality. Even worse, the story seems to lose sight of its purpose, resulting in an underwhelming finale, which is almost criminal considering how scathing Dickens’ social commentary was within his novel; a commentary that could have been appreciated by 21st century audiences.
The film’s saving grace is Ianucci’s talent for character driven pieces, as it is a perfect match to Dickens’ keen discernment for the hidden yet continuing absurdity of human nature. Ianucci effectively lifts the colourful oddballs that fill the pages of Dickens (which have had readers returning time and time again for a century and a half) and brings them to a full cinematic realisation. Like many of Dickens’ novels, the titular character steps aside to give room for the side characters and bring life to the story; much to the detriment of Patel’s performance, the actor unfortunately suffering from constant scene-stealing.
An instant crowd-pleaser is Peter Capaldi as Micawber: on the surface simple comic relief, but in truth a deeply tragic character. His bravado and joviality act as a meer sheen for his almost ferocious instinct for survival, which he desperately tries to suppress so as to keep a shred of his dignity. Oddly this false zest for life is what provides his continuing motivation despite his depressing. Mr Micawber could have easily been presented as a scoundrel or even just plain villainous through his shameless scrounging, yet he still reaps our sympathy and empathy. Ianucci understands the horror of the destitution Dickens describes, and cleverly uses the comedy of Micawber to enrage his audience. Micawber must consume to live, yet the society he lives within refuses him the means to do so. It is both rib-tickling and sobering to see an honest man’s roast chicken taken away by bailiffs.
Such faithfulness to the spirit of Dickens’ novel is what makes these characters so captivating, especially as no compromises were made to “modernise” them. An excellent example is the plight of Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), an individual who believes that the fears and anxieties of Charles I left the King’s head upon his decapitation and are now plaguing his own mind. No pseudo-psychology is applied, but it is the love and support of his friends and family which allow him to flourish. In particular, its the imagination and compassion of David Copperfield that free Mr Dick from his inner demons and ground him into the present.
Despite the lacklustre narrative of The Personal History of David Copperfield, it is its wonderful characters that bring home its message. Through the comedy of Ianucci we can revel in their flaws and oddities but also understand their vulnerability to poverty and homelessness. Through their charisma and panache we can understand that, despite their less honourable habits, none of them deserve to fight for an existence on the streets or in the slums – infact we are left enraged by those who deliberately inflict such fates on others through greed and corruption. The most gorgeous moments of this film are those in which the characters share what little they have with others, showing the true nobility of the human spirit within the slum classes of Victorian England.
As the world continues to flip flop towards shaky and unstable times in which financial security is becoming a pipe dream for more and more people, it becomes of increasing importance to produce films that directly address the injustice of poverty. Within the highs and lows of The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Ianucci validates his place within British Cinema as a writer and director, on the single merit that he is a filmmaker who seems to still care about social issues. He may not have been in top form here, but his voice is one that will gain further appreciation within the British film industry moving forward.