The Personal History of David Copperfield, a cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, is ebullient. The editing, with flashbacks and a fast pace, may seem hackneyed, but director Armando Iannucci’s decision to condense 600 pages into two hours works well for the most part. Iannucci has cut out some stories and characters from the book, but the main plot remains the same. The result is an entertaining film, albeit not quite an intellectual reinterpretation of the classic.
Copperfield (Dev Patel) is introduced to us on a stage, where he reads a text about his early life before being transported back to the place of his birth in rural England. We meet his uppity aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and a host of colourful characters such as the forgetful Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), the alcoholic Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), the always penniless Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi), and the quixotic Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark). All good actors, but the multitude of characters gets confusing at times.
Iannucci does a fine job of capturing Dickens’s genius in exposing British class prejudice. Even though the novel was written 170 years ago, similar differences in life experiences still define modern life in Britain. The abject poverty depicted can still be seen today, partly due to the combination of high taxes and reduced public services, also known as “austerity”. As we follow Copperfield’s journey from privileged status to inhumane drudgery, then back to affluence, we are left with the impression that this could happen to anyone today.
Cinematically, class conflict can be felt through the juxtaposition of the expansive fields and rolling hills surrounding Betsey Trotwood’s mansion and the cramped flat in East London where most characters find themselves forced to live together after losing everything. Luckily, they regain their social status once they find out that Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) has embezzled their investments. Meanwhile, Copperfield composes his life story, finding the ultimate form of emancipation in the art of writing.
Beyond its critique of class differences, the film is thus first and foremost a celebration of a writer’s ascension. Iannucci shows us how Dickens used the character of David Copperfield to write about his own life journey. We can see the way a writer is influenced and shaped by his experiences in his formative years, and what can happen when he finally decides to sit down and write. When artistic longing is unfulfilled, the dreamy distractedness seen in Dona Spenlow and Mr Dick come to the fore, giving way to a lost and meaningless life. This film may be light entertainment, but the novel wasn’t.
Victor Stepien is a critic and Americanist. He lives in London
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