Movie review: New film adaptation of ‘David Copperfield’ marvelously spins a great yarn
First, a note about the title. Why all the extra words? Why isn’t it just called “David Copperfield?” You should be grateful. The Charles Dickens novel, published serially beginning in 1849, was known as “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to be Published on Any Account).”
Second, an explanation of my relationship with “David Copperfield.” I’ve never read it (isn’t it something like 900-pages long?) and, until now, I’d never seen any feature film or made-for-TV movie based on it. So, there’ll be no comparisons of the work by Mr. Dickens to the screenplay by Simon Blackwell or the direction by Armando Iannucci.
It’s quite obvious that cuts have been made, that scenes and (I’ve been told) even characters have been eliminated, in that the film comes in at a comparatively compact two-hour running time. But to the questions: Is it a good story and is it well told?, the answers to both are a resounding yes.
I did check out the Project Gutenberg Ebook of “David Copperfield” and can attest to the fact that the first line of both the novel and the film is “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
I’ll only know of other similarities if I one day sit down to read the book. For now, here’s what you’ve got in store in this wonderfully entertaining film.
It’s jam-packed with characters, and I use that word in an imaginative, expressive manner. Our titular protagonist, played with compassion and energetic zest by Dev Patel, is one of the film’s few “normal” people, and is joined in that category by possible love interest Agnes (a glowing Rosalind Eleazar). Pretty much everyone else around David goes over the top in displaying some sort of odd personality, whether it be pushy Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), evil Murdstone (Darren Boyd), rascally Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi - “Dr. Who” fans rejoice!), slimy Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw), addled Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), or bubbleheaded Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark).
The story - the autobiography, really - is told from the point of view of David, looking back on the freewheeling, troubled, rewarding, ultimately happy life he’s been living. He’s introduced as a storyteller in the opening frames, and that’s no surprise, as he’s seen, throughout the film, jotting down notes on scraps of paper - whether they be his own thoughts or words that others have said.
So, we learn of his widowed mother marrying the awful man Murdstone, and Murdstone’s dastardly plan to send young David off to the city to work in a dreadful bottling factory. And we find out early on that no matter what misfortunes the young lad - and later the young man - faces, he is a kind and generous soul who just wants to help others.
No matter how bad things get for David, and a few other individuals, one of the reasons that Dickens’ book has been and this film should be so popular is that it also boasts a terrific sense of humor, which is put across here with dialogue, line delivery, body movements, and even a bit of slapstick.
Changes in David’s life come flying at him with regularity. After too much emotional abuse at the bottle factory, he runs off to live with demanding Aunt Betsey, who appears to be the guardian of poor, mixed up Mr. Dick, both of whom turn out to be kindly. Then David heads off to school, where he meets up with enigmatic fellow student Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), one of many people from whom David feels a need to hide what he considers his lowly family background. Then there’s the accountant Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and his lovely daughter Agnes and, best of all, hiding from every debt-collector in town, the colorful Mr. Micawber.
So many people, so much storytelling, such a winning performance by Patel of a character I’d like to know even better. Perhaps it’s time for me to read the book.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” opens theatrically on Aug. 28. Please check the Website of your local cinema for safety guidelines during the pandemic.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield”
Written by Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci; directed by Armando Iannucci
With Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Wishaw, Rosalind Eleazar