If anyone can tease out the devilish humour and absurdity from Dickens, it’s Iannucci. The creative force behind satires like The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin is so well-matched to the material, in fact, that it’s a wonder he hadn’t embarked on such a screenplay before.
It’s clear that Iannucci knows the Dickens novel The Personal History of David Copperfield intimately, making his film a passion project, recreating the story in a way that brings it to life for all audiences. I do believe there’s still a tendency to put Dickens on a pedestal and not to bring fun to his more serious work: in a conversation prior to the screening, other critics and I talked about the lighthearted nature of the film. Does it detract from what makes Dickens’ work darkly comic? But as the credits rolled, I felt as though I understood his work so much more clearly as Iannucci had teased out the satire that could so often go unnoticed.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Director: Armando Ianucci
Release date: October 2, 2019 (LFF)
Throughout David’s (a fantastic Dev Patel) life, he is known by many different names. Trotwood. Daisy. Dodie. But in The Personal History of David Copperfield, he is allowed to rewrite his story to tell the truth. The film begins with a classic proscenium arch, in line with A Christmas Carol or the narrator in A Tale of Two Cities, setting the scene and allowing the diegetic and real-life audiences to position themselves in the story.
The film is broken up into segments, signposted like a novel. From a young age David recognises and observes, writing it all down in gorgeous, cursive handwriting. He notes all his encounters with his eccentric mixture of family and friends, from Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) who’s losing her marbles, to the faithful maid Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). In fact, from the offset the terrific lineup deserves a mention: Gwendolyn Christie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Wishaw, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong and Aneurin Barnard all make up a many-faceted collection of talent.
The narrator is, unusually, present as an adult at his own birth (through reflection) and his childhood scenes are marked by his own retrospective narration and nostalgic, soft-focus shots. A formative trip takes him to Yarmouth as a boy, and David’s affection for the accents is tangible. (It’s later picked up as ‘dialect’ and is used to highlight the discrepancies between London and his provincial upbringing — just an observation on the way language belies thought and action.) He has an idyllic time at the boat house, until an evil stepfather comes and breaks up his happiness. It feels like a play on the standard evil stepmother trope, but this is Dickens: so perhaps everything that follows is a subversion of his original ideas!
He is banished to London at a young age, humiliated by working in a factory — breaking bottles takes on a huge significance when it means a half-day’s pay. David uses his power of imagination to see him through these dark years (and of course Dickens’ social commentary can’t go unnoticed). Names like Murdstone (Muderstone) are caricatured for full effect. David’s imagination is impressive but a lot of what he creates stories about is drawn from his own difficult experience.
But alongside the harsh, there are kinder figures too. Peter Capaldi’s Mr Micawber playing opposite Hugh Laurie’s Mr. Dick was an absolute match made in heaven and I could watch their repartee all day. The silliness of the melodrama was fun in a way that I’ve not seen in any other Dickens adaptation.
We also get an eccentric and bizarre life in Dover. It’s great fun and David has a real connection to his family there. I loved Mr. Dick’s eccentric study and his obsession with Charles I. His truly sharp, batty, compassionate nature is evident: “he connects disturbing events with historical appearances.” In a wonderful moment, David realises he can connect with him and lift him out of his gloom by attaching all the bad memories and associations he has written down to a kite, so that he can fly it. It works; David can’t help but remark, “I enjoy seeing you so liberated.” It’s a metaphor anyone who’s had a down day can learn from.
David enjoys his time studying, meeting friends, falling in love. But what goes up must come down, and Ben Wishaw’s Uriah Heep comes into the scene, he brings a great deal of intrigue and suspicion into David’s life. After a brief foray into an irresponsible lifestyle, David eventually comes to the realisation that power and money means nothing if a person’s character is bad. Instead, he chooses to surround himself with a beautiful, vibrant mixture of people in his household. With extreme resilience and a capacity to see the good in the bad, David’s story is an ode to quiet observation, which manifests itself in a powerful way.
It wouldn’t be Dickens if characters didn’t appear and reappear at opportune moments throughout the narrative: the unity of the different elements makes it feel brilliantly put-together. Do you ever stop and wonder who taught Dickens how to write like that? It’s evident the screenplay is the result of a thoughtful consideration of the novel and one must think about the harmony with which the pieces fit together.
Iannucci’s comedy is here stylised like a play and its payoff is brilliant: the specificity of the jokes and their fantastic execution is what made them work so well. It resembles an Oscar Wilde farce in many ways, largely owing to Iannucci’s comedic input. The framing was so dynamic — each shot was focused in on close-ups of the characters’ faces. Space is a malleable thing, played with, pulled backwards and forwards. Not only that, but Iannucci isn’t afraid to play with form. On two occasions, a story told from one character’s point of view to another is transformed into a diegetic projection on the wall.
I absolutely loved a sequence where David and his friends were drunk in London and decide to see a play. The camera speeds up and music plays over the dialogue. Intertitles come in and there are all the slapstick pratfalls you could cram into a minute of film. Honestly, just thinking about it brings a huge smile to my face.
I’m not sure whether spoilers are entirely in order for a piece of classic literature, but the end of the story felt a little like a moral justification for the characters’ actions. It feels slightly too lecturing, too rebuking or correcting. But it’s also a cause for compassion and perspective for other characters.
Despite his difficult childhood, David fills gaps in people’s lives with love and care. It might be accused of saccharine treatment of a novel that intended to expose the conditions of the London working class, but at the end of the day, Iannucci has achieved something others haven’t been able to. Through the most absurd comedy, he has brought hope into focus, fixating on the endless capacity to see good in the world.