Released: 2nd July
Seen: 5th August
When it comes to adaptations of Charles Dickens, everyone has had a crack at one of his stories. There’ve been versions that rewrote Oliver as a story of a young gay prostitute and versions of A Christmas Carol focussed around a vacuous TV host, just to name the oddest ones I could think of. The brilliance of Dickens’ work is that it lends itself to adaptation with it’s grand characters, beautiful stories and fiendishly fun dialogue, though when you do adapt his work you have to be aware that some of the stories already have definitive adaptations you will be compared with.
If you adapt Oliver, you will be compared to the 1968 musical adaptation that everyone thinks about when they hear that title. If you adapt A Christmas Carol you’re going to have to do better than what the Muppets did back in 92 (or be interesting like the most recent adaptation) and now if you adapt David Copperfield… well, I’m not sure this would be the ultimate adaptation of that novel, but it’s a genuinely great one.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the book of a similar name by Charles Dickens. We follow the young David Copperfield (Dev Patel) from his birth through the inevitable time at a workhouse (it is a Dickens story after all) through his life of adversity until he finally manages to make his fortune as a writer. If you read the story of David Copperfield then you could probably guess what the story of the movie adaptation is going to be like.
From the moment you see Dev Patel as the main character walking from a theatre stage into a house so he can attend his own birth, you start to realise that this adaptation is going to set itself apart from other adaptations in two key ways. The first is that this film is very committed to a Hamilton style casting, casting people of various races in whatever role they’re qualified for because it’s 2020 and we can just do that now.
This open casting (aka this casting that actually represents modern society and lets people with talent play good roles… oh, up on my soapbox again) helps us get some genuinely great performances by a cast that feels a lot more realistic than the boring all white casts of previous adaptations. The second is that this film will gleefully mix in stylism whenever it has a chance, and it has many chances to do this. In doing these two simple things the movie manages to make the timeless tale work for a modern audience.
As Dickens is prone to do, the characters in this film are lush and instantly iconic. Aided by Armando Iannucci’s brilliant adaptation and direction, every character has a moment or two where they get to shine and show all their glorious eccentricities. There isn’t a dud performance in the bunch, everyone came to play and brought their A game, all surrounding an engaging and brilliantly charming performance by Dev Patel who really sells every scene. I won’t be shocked if, in this year of limited options, his performance is brought up again come awards season.
The film itself looks gorgeous, with sets that bring a slightly whimsical take on the extremes of poverty and wealth that the characters in this film go through. From the set design to the costuming, everything is heightened in such a way that it keeps the tone of the film just light enough that we can get through the scenes of children in sweatshops or implied beatings and enjoy the more fanciful moments of kite flying or the house made from an upside down boat, a location that’s probably the highlight of the film in terms of how it’s used to show the difference between the eyes of a child and the gaze of an adult.
Mingled throughout the film are some great little stylistic touches, especially in transitional moments when the film really wants to show off a little. Things like having moments of exposition done by having a character describe what happened while a film is projected on the wall behind them gives this production a lot of life and a unique identity.
I do wish it had done it a little bit more in some places, towards the middle of the film they drop the transitional bits and they’re definitely missed. There are also some moments that are weird one offs, like a random double speed Benny Hill-style shot, and I kind of wish there’d been a few more of those because you can see the film actively slowing down without them.
When The Personal History of David Copperfield is firing on all cylinders, it’s a joyous little film that’s engaging as hell. A great retelling of some classic material, belonging up there with the recent Little Women in terms of classic stories being adapted for a modern audience. The only way this one’ll be topped is if the Muppets decide to do a version with Miss Piggy as Betsy Trotwood, but until then this is a pretty great version of the tale.