The Personal History of David Copperfield at Cinema Nova

Film, Comedy
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Photograph: Supplied

Time Out says

The Dickens classic is now a hilarious and unique film from Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It and Veep

David Copperfield was Charles Dickens’ favourite of his 15 novels and also one of the most popular by arguably the greatest of all the Victorian English novelists. The sprawling 1850 tale of a writer’s traumatic childhood, the intrigues of his adulthood and his ultimate professional and personal coming of age, it’s a story that closely mirrored Dickens’ own life – full of unforgettable characters, human comedy, and outrage at the injustices suffered by the poor.

The novel has been adapted for the screen several times already – most notably in 1935 by George Cukor in a lively production featuring WC Fields as Mr Micawber. It’s also been adapted for television no less than five times. But it’s fair to say there has never been an adaptation quite like this one.

It’s the brainchild of Armando Iannucci, the UK funnyman who created both The Thick of It and Veep – those popular and very sweary TV romps through the corridors of power. Best known as a political satirist, Iannucci most recently co-wrote and directed The Death of Stalin, a devastating film about the struggles for control in the wake of the death of the Soviet Union’s tyrannical dictator.

Iannucci’s not the first person you’d assume to be a hardcore Dickens fan, but in fact he’s a graduate in English Literature from Oxford, and in 2012 made a BBC TV special, Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, in which he evaluates the author “without the Victorian seriousness”. To Iannucci’s mind, the works of Dickens have been treated in the past with two much reverence for the plots (which can be extremely convoluted) and not enough emphasis on what many people love about them most – the comedy.  

“The modernity of David Copperfield has always been lost [onscreen] the minute people put on their bonnets,” says Iannucci. So in adapting a 600-page book into a two-hour film, the first thing he insisted upon was colourblind casting. And it’s a masterstroke. The boyish Dev Patel is perfect in the title role, Benedict Wong plays Mr Wicklow, Rosalind Eleazar plays Agnes Wickfield, and Nikki Amuka-Bird is Mrs Steerforth. The result is the opposite of a jarring sense of anachronism, but rather, rings true as joyous celebration of humanity’s diversity – which is always one of the key takeaways from any Dickens novel.

The casting is perfect in other ways. Who better than Tilda Swinton to take on Betsey Trotwood, David’s eccentric, tough-as-nails aunt with a heart of gold, or Hugh Laurie to play the lovable man-child Mr Dick? Doctor Who and The Thick of It star Peter Capaldi takes on the iconic role of eternal optimist Mr Micawber; Ben Whishaw plays the obsequious and untrustworthy Uriah Heep; and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie gets her moment to shine as the gloriously passive aggressive Jane Murdstone.

The film also happens to be stunning to look at, with the costume designer behind The Grand Budapest Hotel on board. The Personal History of David Copperfield has scored some rave reviews and will enjoy a season at Cinema Nova from March 26.  

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