I had been wanting to see this since this film came out last Fall in the UK. Its US release was supposed to be in May this year, but of course it was delayed due to Covid-19. Well, it was well worth the wait! Confession: I’m actually not that familiar with this Charles Dickens’ classic (the only two I’m familiar with are A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations), and I really wish I were. Dicken’s eighth novel is apparently considered to be his masterpiece… in his own words, he described it as “a very complicated weaving of truth and invention” and some elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’s own life.
One thing you notice right away, even from its marketing, is the color-blind casting, which I will get to that later. It takes a certain skill to create a fresh take on a classic, especially one that’s been adapted many times. Director Armando Iannucci certainly has it. The Scottish-born of Italian descent filmmaker is creator of In The Loop and Veep series, and his previous feature was the rather bizarre The Death of Stalin. Most of his work are political satire, but this time he tackled a literary classic with his longtime collaborator Simon Blackwell who penned the script.
Set in the 1840s, it began with young David (Jairaj Varsani) growing up with his mother (Morfydd Clark). Life was relatively happy with his mom and kind housekeeper miss Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), until she remarried an abusive man and young David ends up being sent to a boarding school and later put to work with other poor kids at a wine factory in London that partly owned by his stepfather. I have to admit I find it a bit amusing at first seeing Varjani, then later Dev Patel as David Copperfield, but after a while I truly see Patel embody the character with his certain playfulness and charisma.
Following his mother’s passing, David ran away from the factory and upon the advise of his debt-ridden landlord Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), went to Dover to find his only remaining relative, great aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with her equally eccentric relative, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). His circumstances seem to be improving as aunt Betsey treats him well, despite insisting on calling him “Trotwood Copperfield” or “Trot”, and Mr. Dick is grateful to him for helping him of being consumed by Charles I, the British monarch who lost his head (literally) in mid 1600. The scene of them playing a kite to help clear Mr. Dick’s head is quite a jolly affair.
His aunt sent David to another school and during that time, and his next adventure puts him in contact with a set of new people in his life. It’s rather hard at times to keep everyone straight since I’m not familiar with the story. There is James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), an older schoolboy who befriends David, Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), a lawyer who loves to drink, and his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), and Wickfield’s clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
Just like in real life, certain people that comes in David’s life don’t always have the best intentions, and David finds out the hard way. Steerforth is an antagonist of sort–someone David regarded as noble, despite his snobbish, condescending nature. But Heep is definitely the villain of the story, all creepy and even downright spooky at times when he practically forces David to join him for tea. As I haven’t seen other adaptations of David Copperfield, I don’t have anything to compare this too, but the pacing is quite dynamic which makes up for the sometimes chaotic, discombobulating ups and downs of the characters.
Patel is definitely the star of the show and he’s the perfect actor to portray the equal comedic and dramatic side of David. There’s such a gleeful adventurous spirit in this film, which I imagine is what is intended by Dickens in his novel. I love how David’s gift as a storyteller and writer is illustrated wonderfully here, full of colorful adventure as well as heartbreaking poignancy. But it doesn’t mean the film makes light of the calamity that David encounters, when his heart breaks upon hearing about his mother’s death and he goes on wreaking havoc at the wine factory, I could feel the pain in his eyes.
Now, in regards to the color casting I mentioned above, I think it paid off wonderfully. Iannucci is quoted on The Independent as saying “It wasn’t a conscious reaction to Brexit, but the conversation has gone very insular in terms of what Britain is and what it doesn’t want to be. I wanted to celebrate what Britain actually is, and it’s much more of a carefree, enjoyable, humorous kind of zesty, energetic place.” In the same article Patel said this about the film’s diverse casting “I totally missed this literary classic growing up. It didn’t appeal to me. And what Armando has done with the casting and the world, he has given it a buoyancy and an accessibility to kids like myself. It really is representative of a modern Britain – the one that I grew up in.”
Honestly, I don’t know if I’d be as enthused about this film if it weren’t for the color blind casting. Now, I’m not saying now all I want to see is every literary classic being portrayed with the same color blind casting, but it certainly adds a certain level of interest. Now, simply having ethnic actors play traditionally-white characters doesn’t automatically make a film great. It takes a certain directorial vision and also a set of vibrant actors to make it work.
In the end, I forget that ethnic actors are portraying Victorian-era characters written as Caucasians. The vibrant direction, dynamic performances, gorgeous cinematography, costumes, production design and general atmosphere of the film creates an immersive quality. It all helped me get invested in the characters’ journey throughout. Patel’s charm and versatility (and his gorgeous tousled hair a la the one he’s sporting in LION) is in full display, I’m glad he got the chance to play this role and I hope more filmmakers are inspired by this bold casting decision. I can’t wait to see him tackle yet another classic character that’s typically played by a Caucasian actor… The Green Knight.
Aside from Patel, the rest of the supporting cast are also a joy to watch. Tilda Swinton is always wonderful to watch and her Doctor Strange‘ co-star Benedict Wong is quite hilarious as the alcoholic lawyer. Morfydd Clark has the good fortune of playing two characters, David’s mother and love interest, the utterly silly Dora Spenlow with her fluffy puppy. But it’s the tentative but soulful kinship between David and Agnes is what I find most emotionally resonant, perhaps also because we see David has grown wiser and more mature by this point.
David Copperfield is a complex novel with so much going on, filled with a plethora of themes such as class structure, societal expectations and inequality, etc. but yet feels personal as it’s written from one man’s point of view as he treads on one life adventure to the next. I’m glad I finally get to experience this classic story and definitely garner new appreciation and interest for Dicken’s work.
Have you seen The Personal History of David Copperfield? If so, what did you think?