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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

The Personal History of David Copperfield - lots of trickery and fun in this truncated version.

4 out of 5

The BBC produced an adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield in the early seventies that really creeped me out. It was dark, depressing and I found the character of Uriah Heep terrifying. It must have affected me more than I knew as I found myself disliking the character of Uriah Heep in this new version of the story by one of my favourite directors and screenwriters, Armando Iannucci. Who could dislike Ben Wishaw? Me apparently. I've clearly got baggage.

Putting aside my trauma, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an adaptation of Dickens 600-page book into a two-hour film. What is most unique about this adaptation is the approach to the story-telling. The film opens with David Copperfield on stage, beginning to narrate his life story of rags to riches and back again. He steps to the back of the stage and pulls down the scenery to show us a field and him walking towards a house where he witnesses his own birth. This rapid approach to changing scenes, whether it's scenery dropping like a curtain or a giant Monty Python-like hand reaching in to a scene and plucking him from it, works well, if not entirely original.

Like all Dickens novels, there is trauma, hardship, redemption and evil-doers getting their just desserts. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it is the tale of David Copperfield who has a relatively happy childhood until his mother remarries and his step-father sends him to work in London. Conditions and life is harsh but along the way Copperfield meets wonderful characters such as Mr Micawber, travels to Yarmouth to meet Peggotty and the family who live in an upturned boat. He goes to live with his aunt, Betsy Trotwood and Mr Dick, who clearly suffers from poor mental health but this is dealt with lovingly.

The casting is inspired, truly. The casting is colour blind and is the better for it. Dev Patel plays Copperfield. A delightful Peter Capaldi, fully recovered from his stint as The Doctor, plays Micawber. Of course Daisy May Cooper is Peggotty. Morfydd Clark is David's timid mother, Clara. Also, we have Ben Whishaw as your ’umble servant, Uriah Heep, Tilda Swinton as donkey-bashing Betsey Trotwood, Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth and the wonderful Nikki Amuka-Bird as Steerforth’s mother. (For those who will pathetically ask how Steerforth can be white when his mother is black I put it to you that it does not matter. This is all a fiction!) Part of the fun here is just clocking who is who when they truck up. Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone)! Paul Whitehouse (Mr Peggotty)! But it’s Hugh Laurie, as childlike Mr Dick, who steals the show. Mr Dick was the only character I felt anything for and my heart lifted whenever he entered, and sank whenever he exited. It is also Laurie in a part that doesn’t demand one of his weird and improbable American accents. Which is a relief. It did carry echoes of his Prince Regent role in Blackadder and that's not a bad thing.

As for Dev Patel, he is delightful as Copperfield as far as this Copperfield goes, which isn’t very far. He’s more a placeholder than a full-blooded character, there to lead us through the story rather than become it. Anything the novel has to say about class or injustice has been wholly lost, reinforcing that this is a fantasy, a memoir with all the nice bits left in and most of the nasty stuff omitted. Hats off to Iannucci for creating another wonderful, imaginative piece of cinema.

I'm off to see it again.

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