More noise than signal

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I suppose I should feel ashamed that I’ve not read David Copperfield, or, to be honest, much of Dicken’s works, but life is short and I feel I’ve got the gist – being poor is awful and rich people are awful. That’s pretty much the gist of his output, right? It’s certainly one of the central themes of Armando Iannucci’s adaptation

Dev Patel’s David Copperfield narrates his own journey through life in Victorian times, growing up happily, played as a nipper by Jairaj Varsani, in a well off family until his widowed mother, Morfydd Clark’s Clara Copperfield, marries the outright evil Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who before long packs him off to London to toil in his bottling factory under, well, Dickensian conditions. There he toils for years, lodging with the somewhat sketchy Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family, before making a break for freedom after being informed, some weeks after the funeral, that his mother has passed away.

He heads cross-country to his only surviving relative’s gaff, his Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), meeting her lodger, the “eccentric” Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). “Eccentric” in the ways that would have poorer people lobotomised, but that can largely be solved, as it happens, by some prescription kite-flying. Betsey eventually agrees to fund David’s education, so he’s sent to a boarding school where he’ll become friends with the dashing, yet troubled James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard). However, their taunting of Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep will come back to bite them as he goes on to make Copperfield’s later young adult life miserable, as he plots to take over Betsey’s lawyer’s practise and swindle them out of their money, leveraging Benedict Wong’s Mr. Wickfield’s alcoholism, and move in on Copperfield’s ultimate love interest Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar).

That’s, well, maybe the half of it, and half of the important characters, and from what I can gather the entirety of the film is maybe the half of the novel, and there’s more than a few changes in locations, timing, and ultimate character fate. That may perhaps annoy purists, and I’m sure the colour-blind casting will annoy the usual knuckle-draggers, but for a more general audience there’s an awful lot to like here.

It’s a beautiful looking period drama, in the way that they all tend to be, but the real attraction here is the comedy, which this delivers bigly. It has the best words, all the best words, and dear lord, these performances. It seems unfair to single any one out as it’s such a great ensemble performance, but if you don’t come out of this thinking Peter Capaldi is the best thing since sliced bread there is something wrong with you, although, to be fair, you should have had that opinion going in to it. Do try to keep up. Dev Patel does a great job of anchoring things and where required providing a straight man for the more outlandish characters to bounce off, and, well, everyone else is pretty great too.

I don’t think there’s a great deal more value in my prattling on much more about it, other than to say I found it a very funny, very touching story, that’s immaculately produced and therefore very highly recommended.