David Copperfield is said to be Charles Dickens’ most autobiographical novel and in a similar way to how fellow film maker Greta Gerwig draws on Louisa M. Alcott’s own life with Little Women, director Armando Iannucci pulls a similar trick here with an attention grabbing opening scene of David (Dev Patel) on stage at a lectern telling his own story to a rapt audience.
He then sets off at a brisk lick striding into his own past, beginning with his actual birth – and the pace doesn’t slacken from then on.
Patel acts out his character’s life with largely genial gusto, commenting on it and the world around him and forever making notes, which will come together at the end as the story he will write.
Dickens’ colourful characters are always a joy for an actor to play and the members of the star studded cast give them a joyful, theatrical and in some ways almost cartoonish energy.
Prominent among them is Tilda Swinton as David’s eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, present at his birth and disappointed that he is not a girl but nevertheless taking charge of his fortunes later in the story – when she is not chasing donkeys out of her garden, that is. Hugh Laurie is endearingly and amiably dotty in a gentler way as her lodger Mr. Dick. Peter Capaldi, in contrast to the foul mouthed Malcolm Tucker he created for this same director, is David’s kindly friend, the ever optimistic Mr. Micawber.
Paul Whitehouse and Daisy May Cooper are simple kindness itself as the Peggoty brother and sister with whose adopted children young David spends happy hours and then there are his two later school friends – the posh, likeable but ultimately flaky James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) and the oily and untrustworthy Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw), sporting a pudding basin haircut and his deceptive, ever so humble air. And that’s not all of them.
The darker side of Dickens, one of whose hallmarks is the way he highlighted the appalling way Victorian society treated children, only really appears in the first half of the film, when David’s mother marries the cruel Edward Murston (Darren Boyd), who insists on whipping the boy despite his mother’s pleas and who then exiles him to London to work in a grim bottle factory. Other elements – homelessness, loss of fortune, death – are touched on more lightly
The film holds the attention through its sheer pace and theatricality, though it’s a technique that in some ways keeps the audience at a distance. We are observers but not totally involved. It is though thoroughly entertaining and has also earned praise for the way its casting has peopled the film’s world with a more present day diversity.
There are times when this stretches credibility a touch. Could there really have been so many citizens from other parts of the Empire making their way in Victorian England? Perchance the Home Office was less paranoid in those days? But in the main it works well, particularly in the casting of Patel, charismatic in the lead, while in the case of the warm and caring relationship between Mr. Peggoty and his adopted son Ham (Anthony Welsh) it adds an extra, rather heartening dimension to the story.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is available on Digital VOD on iTunes and Amazon. Also available on DVD/Blu Ray from 15th June