Mining Copperfield to strike gold
It was, Charles Dickens once said, his “favourite child”, the book he was closest to, arguably his best work and certainly his most autobiographical. David Copperfield’s struggles closely mirrored his own, from his childhood trials toiling in a bottle factory to his unhappy fascination with an unsuitable female and his struggles to establish himself as a writer.
Dickens bled many elements of his own experience into this epic story, carefully reworking them to create the kind of life he’d like to have had. David Copperfield was close to his heart, and one wonders what he would have made of Armando Iannucci’s adaptation.
Impossible to say, but I’ve a feeling he might have been rather pleased by it, because in The Personal History Of David Copperfield, Iannucci has managed to breathe new life and wit into an over-familiar story, while remaining essentially faithful to it.
Dev Patel is Copperfield, who, as the film opens, wanders in his mind back to his childhood home in Suffolk to watch himself being born. His father is dead, but his mother is a kindly, gentle creature and David has an idyllic first few years in the protective care of their eternally cheerful, bustling maid Peggoty (Daisy May Cooper). But dark clouds gather on the horizon when his mother unwisely remarries.
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Businessman Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd) is a cold, callous creature who quickly identifies the child as an impediment to domestic harmony and, after bullying young Davy mercilessly to try and break his spirit, sends him off to London to work in his gloomy bottling factory. There David will toil for years unhappily, his misery tempered somewhat by the many adventures of his landlord, Wilkins Micawber (Peter Capaldi), a lovable conman who somehow manages to keep one step ahead of a small army of furious creditors.
When David grows up, he runs away to Kent to seek the help of his aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), an eccentric but kind-hearted woman who will become his benefactor. She and her still more eccentric lodger Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie) dote on David and send him to a private school where he finally gets a proper education and makes the acquaintance of the charismatic and compelling James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who will play a dramatic role in Copperfield’s future.
Things are looking up, but David’s fortunes ebb and flow spectacularly, and after Betsy Trotwood’s fortune is swindled from under her feet by an unscrupulous legal clerk called Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), the whole family faces run and must move to a dingy London tenement. Only Davy’s pen, it seems, can save them.
There is a confident sweep, a Dickensian gusto to the way Iannucci frames and tells his story. He accentuates the novel’s humour at times, but then again, that is not difficult given how many delightfully fruity eccentrics Dickens has generously placed at the film-maker’s disposal.
The casting is inspired. Iannucci regular Capaldi is wonderful as the bug-eyed spoofer Micawber, whom we and David find strangely impossible to dislike, however many times he darkens the door of the debtor’s prison; Whishaw is suitably unctuous as the odious, obsequious Heep; Swinton gives total commitment to her portrayal of David’s odd, endearing aunt; and Laurie’s Mr Dick is a thing of beauty.
This harmless man obsessed with assuaging Charles I’s sufferings is muddle-headed, but capable of sudden emotional insights.
I also enjoyed Paul Whitehouse’s heavy Norfolk twang as the angelic fisherman Mr Peggotty, and Gwendoline Christie’s panto turn as the monstrous Jane Murdstone.
The fact that Iannucci’s cast has an interracial aspect is both relevant and irrelevant: one notes it and moves on. The presence of Patel and Rosalind Eleazer (who plays Agnes Wigfield) does subtly connect the tale to 21st century multicultural Britain, but then again, it somehow feels connected anyway, for Dickens’ characters are immortally relevant, their flaws and virtues enduringly universal.
Iannucci’s film has done them justice, and it’s no exaggeration to describe The Personal History Of David Copperfield as one of the greatest Dickensian adaptations of them all.
The Lighthouse (Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe); Queen & Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloe Sevigny, Bokeem Woodbine); A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson).
At the movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases
The Turning (16, 94mins)
Floria Sigismondi’s febrile Gothic horror is not the first film to have been inspired by Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, but it is certainly the worst. Mackenzie Davis is Kate, a young woman who takes a job as live-in governess to a little girl called Flora (Brooklynn Prince) at a creepy Maine mansion. Flora seems sweet, but is rather neurotic, and things get worse when Flora’s unhinged brother Myles returns from boarding school and Kate begins seeing ghosts. Partly filmed in Ireland, The Turning starts solidly enough, but is never in control of its story and explodes spectacularly in a nonsensical last 10 minutes.
The Grudge (18, 94mins)
Another dodgy horror film, The Grudge is, depressingly, the sequel of a remake. This new reboot shadows the events of the first Hollywood film and begins in Tokyo, where a clearly spooked woman called Fiona phones her family in America and tells them she’s coming home. She brings with her a supernatural curse, and after she and her family die horribly, a supernatural entity takes possession of the home. All who enter will subsequently be afflicted, including a harried cop (Andrea Riseborough), who inspects the crime scene. This is shoddy stuff, full of J-horror clichés and supposed jump-scares you can see coming a mile off.
Films coming soon…
The Lighthouse (Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe); Queen & Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloe Sevigny, Bokeem Woodbine); A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper,
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