Iannucci does Dickens in 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'

24 Jan 2020 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

6 mins
The Personal History of David Copperfield Image 1 FilmNation
The Personal History of David Copperfield Image 1 FilmNation

One of Charles Dickens' most beloved works receives its latest adaptation for the screen, with Armando Iannucci's acclaimed The Personal History of David Copperfield putting a fresh, modern spin on the classic novel.

Dickens' novel was first serialised in 1849 before being published in book form a year later - the typically whimsical full title being The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) - follows the rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story of a young boy growing into adulthood, and the many larger-than-life characters he meets along the way in mid-19th century Victorian England.

The first section of the film explores young David's early life at The Rookery, his place of birth, and the summers he spends with his housekeeper's family in their Yarmouth beach home. But after his mother marries a strict and severe man, David is sent to London to work in a bottling factory with poor pay and even worse working conditions, finding a new surrogate family to lodge with. Years later, an adult David (played by Dev Patel, who previously played another older version of a character looking to find his place in the world in Into Film favourite Lion) returns home after hearing of his mother's death, upon which his life changes considerably once more. From here, David will find a new family with his aunt Betsey Trotwood and her eccentric companion Mr. Dick,  and meet plenty more oddball characters besides, as he attempts to make sense of his life and find meaning, love and happiness within it.

A winning Dev Patel leads a highly amusing cast.

Total Film

Beyond Dev Patel - who is charming, funny and sympathetic in the lead role - there is a large ensemble cast of British talent. Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick, who has a seemingly undiagnosed mental illness beneath his affable personality; Tilda Swinton is the donkey-swatting Betsey Trotwood; Peter Capaldi takes on the role of kindly Mr. Micawber; and Ben Whishaw inhabits the slimy Uriah Heep quite brilliantly. The rest of the cast includes rising stars Morfydd Clark, Aneurin Barnard and Daisy May Cooper, as well as Gwendoline Christie, Paul Whitehouse and Benedict Wong, making it the most diverse cast and crew to work on a David Copperfield production, and indeed, perhaps any Dickens adaptation. This is largely due to the colour-blind approach the filmmakers took to the casting which has been widely praised, and which may yet be a watershed moment for period drama films, or even cinema as a whole.

The works of Charles Dickens have always been ripe for screen versions, with David Copperfield alone receiving at least a dozen reworkings for television and the movies before this one, including three silent films, a couple of animations, and a number of episodic iterations, with actors as varied as Hugh Dancy, Ian McKellen and Daniel Radcliffe - in his very first credited role - all playing the titular character across a number of decades. Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations have also been adapted multiple times on screen, and we recently covered three seminal versions of A Christmas Carol in a collaborative podcast with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), exploring some of the recurring themes as well as the comparisons and contrasts between ScroogeA Christmas Carol (2009) and The Muppet Christmas Carol. There was also a film biopic of Dickens himself in 2017 in the form of The Man Who Invented Christmas, which we discuss in further detail in our blog on the film, ‘The Creation of Dickens' Classic'.

Though writer-director Armando Iannucci is most closely associated with his dark and dry political comedies, from shows including The Thick Of It and Veep to films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, his sense of humour translates seamlessly to 1850s Victorian England and the themes around poverty, class, family and more which are found so often in the writer's work. He has also previously created a one-hour TV documentary on the author, titled Armando's Tale of Charles Dickens, a re-evaluation of Dickens "without the Victorian seriousness" - an approach very much replicated in his version of Copperfield. After re-reading David Copperfield, Iannucci was immediately attracted to the idea of making a movie in his own style and voice "partly because it felt so contemporary". As well as finding modernity in the themes, Iannucci bridges the gap between himself and Dickens by drawing out the humour of the frenzied and chaotic nature of characters and events, something which is common to both their works.

Breathing new life into classic works of literature seems to be in vogue; Greta Gerwig has been roundly praised for her canny updating of the timeless Little Women, and 2020's Emma is a smart and fresh translation of the Jane Austen novel with a cast that includes Josh O'Connor and Anya Taylor-Joy. Perhaps the film that kick-started this new trend - reminding us that period dramas do not necessitate being solemn and demure, but can be just as fun and witty as any other genre - is 2016's Love and Friendship, also based on a Jane Austen property (novella Lady Susan), in which indie writer-director Whit Stillman, like Copperfield's Iannucci and The Favourite's Yorgos Lanthimos thereafter, found the perfect symbiosis between his trademark style and the history of the piece.

A treat for Dickens fans, 'The Personal History Of David Copperfield' is so alive and immediate that it should also connect with an audience who would never dream of tackling a weighty 19th century tome.

Screen International

Whatever the reason for these classic-meets-modern hybrids of much-loved texts, it appears they're here to stay. The Personal History of David Copperfield has been a smash-hit with critics and audiences alike since opening the London Film Festival to rave reviews in October 2019, picking up five British Independent Film Awards two months later. Forget what you think you know about Dickens and period dramas, because innovators like Armando Iannucci are changing the rules of the game, making The Personal History of David Copperfield a treat for young audiences, educators and families alike.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24 January.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator (Learning)

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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