“The Personal History of David Copperfield” originally written by Charles Dickens is adapted into an unorthodox screenplay by Simon Blackwell. The story, whether you’ve read Dickens or not, is a familiar one as a young boy must overcome one atrocity after another to not only survive but to also succeed.
Dev Patel stars as the older version of David, but we are taken back in time to David’s birth and childhood. It was a rocky start to say the least as young David’s (Ranveer Jaiswal) father died before he was born. Witnessing David’s birth, Aunt Betsy Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) swoops in to add a fantastical element filled with comedy, stating emphatically that the girl will be named after her. Heartily disappointed at the birth of a boy, she exits, dramatically, of course, only to re-emerge later in the film.
David’s mother (Morfydd Clark) and he have a close relationship, that is until a new and intimidatingly controlling “father” (Darren Boyd) steps in. It’s a downward spiral from this point as David is sent away to work in a factory and fend for himself.
Capitalizing on the richly intense imaginative elements, no character is meant to be believable; they are more caricatures than characters. This, of course, adds humor and heart to the story as we are introduced to the likes of light-hearted Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and the lovingly senile Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and many more. The evil elements are well represented, too, with the steely Murdstone and his frigid sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie) as well as the dastardly manipulative Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
David cherishes his youth, longing for the safety and love, but his future is tumultuous as he finds love in the looks of the intellectually challenged young Dora Spenlow (again played strangely by Morfydd Clark who also plays David’s mother). Overlooking the woman who truly loves him, Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), David learns the lessons of life and love in the most difficult of ways.
Both writer Blackwell and director Armando Iannucci take many liberties in retelling this classic tale finding and succeeding in whimsy and humor as the emotional dark cloud hanging low over David’s head is ever present. It’s a complicated story with extraordinary details taking us along David’s life journey and while it’s more of a Cliff Note version of the book, it still hits all the high notes and acts as a wonderful introduction to Dickens and his stories.
The setting and the linguistic flexibility, fluidity and eloquence remains a highlight in this unconventional Dickens’ tale requiring the viewer to pay close attention or you might miss a hilarious comment or remark. Pairing perfectly together is the set and costume design. Wild colors and on the wall, mismatched bold patterns of pants, dresses, and vests, and a capsized boat in the sand, all remind us that we are in an imaginary world sprinkled with the dark realities of life. Those dark realities are represented visually with style and color, all bleak and dark tones coloring the life and outlook within the confines of the factory or the city in decline. Thankfully, the writer balances these scenes which keeps our visual senses sharply focused.
Equally balanced is the humor, much of it provided by Mr. Dick (Laurie) and Mrs. Trotwood (Swinton). A prime example is the fact that Mr. Dick perseverates on the beheading of a king who lived a century before. Overloaded with thoughts written on paper, Mr. Dick flies the thoughts away on a kite. And then there’s the continual attack of the donkeys. It’s madcap craziness, but unfortunately, that pacing isn’t maintained for the entire film. The 2-hour film tackles a lot of territory, but perhaps a bit too much and editing would have allowed the film to maintain the pace.
Patel’s depiction of the fictional character of David Copperfield, aka Daisy or Trotwood much to his chagrin, is a graciously eloquent one. He becomes more of a reactionary note to all the fanciful characters and the chaos and turmoil unfolding around him, but his character is the needle that stitches the story together. Clark in her dual role has the most fun as Dora as she talks through her lap dog and misunderstands much of what is said. It’s a standout cast of actors, but Whishaw, almost unrecognizable with his slicked down hair, strange teeth and hunched over Igor-esque physique steals the show. It should also be noted that the “color blind” casting may be initially unexpected, but this notion is quickly dispelled.
With the exception of a small pacing issue halfway through the film, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” now showing in theaters, is an inventive and bold depiction of a classic tale well worth seeing.
3 1/2 Stars