The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Broad but spirited

Some of those classic Victorian novels written by Charles Dickens delighted me a lot when I read them during my adolescent and college years. Sure, many of the characters in his novels are essentially stereotypes, but they are strikingly and humorously depicted with colorful personalities and recognizable human qualities, and they will surely stay in your mind for a long time after you read Dickens’ books.

As watching “The Personal History of David Copperfield”, the latest adaptation of Dickens’ 1850 novel “David Copperfield”, I was instantly reminded of how much I loved the novel for a bunch of variously colorful supporting characters swirling around its titular hero. I still wince whenever I think of the sadistic firmness of Mr. Murdstone and his equally cruel sister, I still frown whenever I think of the hypocritical humbleness of Uriah Heep, and I still smile whenever I think of the amiable eccentricity of Betsey Trotwood, Mr. Dick, and Mr. Micawber, to whom I will gladly give some few pounds with no condition from time to time even though I am well aware of his utter unreliability and irresponsibility.

The screenplay by director/co-writer/co-producer Armando Iannucci, who has been mainly known for “In the Loop” (2009) and “The Death of Stalin” (2017), and his co-writer Simon Blackwell manages to condense the novel into a 2-hour film with some necessary omissions and modifications. For example, it emphasizes its titular hero’s presence more as introducing him as a writer who is about to present the story based on, yes, his real life in front of many audiences, and we come to regard his personal history along with him while occasionally amused by several modern touches in the film including its apparent color-blind casting.

After the prologue scene, the movie swiftly goes back to the time of the birth of its titular hero. When his mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) is about to give birth to him, her sister-in-law Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) unexpectedly appears, and she eagerly expects to have a little niece to adore, but then she promptly leaves once her growing hope is eventually dashed.

Anyway, the next several years are pretty good for young David Copperfield, who is played by Jairaj Varsani during this part. Under the loving care of his mother and a devoted nanny named Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), he grows up to be a bright plucky boy, and we see him spending some nice vacation time with Peggotty and her family living in a beach town, but, alas, his happiness is evaporated when it turns out that his mother is going to marry Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who instantly and firmly dominates over their household along his stern, humorless sister Miss Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie).

Of course, it does not take much time for young Copperfield to see more of the monstrous sides of Mr. Murdstone and his sister. While his mother becomes hopeless and helpless as your typical gaslighted wife, young Copperfield is brutally abused by Mr. Murdstone and his sister, and they eventually send him to a glass bottle factory in London, which is incidentally owned by Mr. Murdstone.

After quickly moving forward to several years later, the movie introduces more characters to swirl around Copperfield, who is now played by Dev Patel from this narrative point. He has stayed in a small and shabby residence along with Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his poor family, and some of the most amusing moments in the film come from how Mr. Micawber tries to avoid his latest debt problems as much as he can until he and his family are finally sent to a prison. Not long after that, Copperfield comes to decide that enough is enough, so he walks out of the glass bottle factory and then seeks help from his aunt, who hesitates at first but eventually comes to let him stay in her house. She has lived with Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), and Copperfield and Mr. Dick, who is as eccentric as Copperfield’s aunt, later come to have a moment of liberation together as Copperfield helps Mr. Dick dealing with a rather silly matter of obsession.

Because he needs to be educated for becoming a proper gentleman, Copperfield is subsequently sent to a progressive school recommended by his aunt’s lawyer Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong), and we are introduced to other several crucial supporting characters including James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) and Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), both of whom turn out to be quite deceitful and harmful in each own way. When Copperfield later meets a pretty young woman by accident, he is instantly attracted to her probably because of a Freudian reason (She is also played by Morfydd Clark, by the way), but we can clearly see that he actually cares more about Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar), who has been more or less than a sister to him since their first encounter via her lawyer father.

As briskly and efficiently hopping from one narrative point to another, the movie is mostly faithful to Dickens’ novel on the whole, though the final part of the novel is considerably altered in the film. For bringing more energy and spirit into the story, Iannucci adds extra style and technique to the movie, and the overall result is often compelling while never losing the colorful charm of Dickens’s novel.

The main cast members are suitably cast in their respective parts. While Dev Patel earnestly holds the center, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Daisy May Cooper, Benedict Wong, and Hugh Laurie have lots of fun with their oddball characters, and Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie, Ben Whishaw, and Aneurin Barnard are as deplorable as required by their supporting roles. In case of Morfydd Clark and Rosalind Eleazar, they are well-cast as two contrasting young women coming into Copperfield’s adult life, and Clark is particularly good during a brief moment revealing some human depth from her supposedly shallow character.

In conclusion, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a charming and spirited adaptation which stays true to Dickens’ novel while also bringing some fresh air to its story and characters, and it is surely another successful case of classic literature novel adaptation to be compared with Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” (2020). Sure, it is not the definite movie adaptation version of Dickens’ novel, but, like “Emma.”, it tries something different with its familiar story and characters, and it succeeds enough to delight and entertain us.

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