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  Personal History of David Copperfield, The Dev's Dickens
Year: 2019
Director: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Rosalind Eleazar, Daisy May Cooper, Bronagh Gallagher, Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Benedict Wong, Paul Whitehouse, Victor McGuire
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The audience are seated, and David Copperfield (Dev Patel) takes to the stage, standing at the lectern to relate the story of his life and the people he has known. He was born to a recently widowed mother, Clara (Morfydd Clark), which placed him at a disadvantage from the beginning, as she was living off her inheritance, which was not enough to keep her and David solvent, and nineteenth century England being what it was, she had to seek another husband to support her. The man she found, however, was Mr Murdstone (Darren Boyd), whose cruelty and intolerance the little boy found himself on the wrong side of - and so a pattern formed.

Adaptations of Charles Dickens are a gift to the television writer, given he wrote in an episode form anyway, leaving his most adapted book to be the relatively short A Christmas Carol which has versions appearing like a rash every Yuletide whether you want them or not. His longer novels did not see the big screen so much, rendering director and co-writer Armando Iannucci's reimagining of Copperfield as an anomaly in the twenty-first century, with his tries at updating the text (while still presenting it as a period piece) not sitting well with many Dickens aficionados, of which there remain a substantial amount around the world, not only nested in Britain.

However, it was not as if it was the only classic book to undergo this treatment, and transforming it into a comedy was a brave move, possibly inspired by W.C. Fields in the nineteen-thirties Hollywood version who played eternal debtor and erstwhile guardian of David, Mr Micawber, for laughs as well as a touch of pathos. Peter Capaldi did the same here, though the effect was a little diluted when everyone else followed suit, and not helping was that the trademark Iannucci irreverence was in the service to some jokes that were very pleased with themselves without actually being tremendously funny, which tended to leave a void at the centre of the picture's overall effect.

It was not a dead loss, nothing like it, as for a start the production was undeniably a handsome one, with a busy look that nevertheless found space for eyecatching landscapes and interiors alike; if nothing else it was aesthetically pleasing on an art direction level, and that included the costumes and set decoration as well as many well-chosen locations and a smattering of CGI for the flights of fancy that get into David's head when he is taken with an idea. Patel was an engaging hero considering he was playing an essentially passive soul to whom things happen rather than someone who actively makes things happen, and wisely he was surrounded by larger than life performances, some more subtle than others, to divert attention from the fact David is bobbing like a cork on the ocean.

Those big performances were provided by an impressive cast of British actors, probably the best that could have been assembled for the material, drawn from talent and what they could bring to their roles as inhabiting them as vividly as possible. As well as the aforementioned Capaldi, Hugh Laurie brought gentle tragedy to the role of David's uncle, a nice man blighted with mental illness in a rather too-modern reading, but one which Laurie sold as one of the highlights. Aneurin Barnard was the best friend of the hero whose snobbery could prove the undoing of them both, Clark was in a dual role as the mother and oddly, Dora, the girl David becomes smitten with though we can tell he would be better off with Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), but perhaps the strongest part was from Ben Whishaw as the conniving, class conscious Uriah Heep, who offered a dash of the social satire Iannucci largely neglected in favour of the glow of the imagery and the offbeat performing. Overall, you would not feel as if you had wasted your time, but you would feel there was something missing, a bite, perhaps. Music by Christopher Willis.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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