If we’re talking literary titans, really only William Shakespeare can rival Charles Dickens when it comes to his presence in all our lives, especially if you grow up in the United Kingdom.
His novels are everywhere and his phrases have bled into so much of our everyday conversation. Every time something gives you ‘The Creeps’, you’re quoting Dickens, drop something and pronounce yourself a ‘butterfingers’, you’re doing the same. They’re on every school reading list and will be for hundreds of years to come.
Now, unlike Shakespeare, whose stories have such a universality about them that they’ve been adapted into teen movies, musicals, and, most recently, vampire love stories, Dickens’ work tends to make adaptors stick to the source’s original setting, hell, even if the Muppets Christmas Carol is stuck in Victorian London.
It goes beyond the settings though. Dickens’ words have a weight and a heft that seem to pin down screenwriters and directors in the tone they choose. These are dour, dank, cruel dramas about the worst of humanity in many cases, and that’s what we’ve seen on screen.
All of which made 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield such a revelation. It’s my favorite Dickens adaptation. In fact, I’d go as far as to call it the best literary adaptation of the 21st century so far. And, it’s leaving HBO Max at the end of the month, so watch it before it goes, here’s why:
An unlikely director...
The Personal History of David Copperfield was written and directed by Armando Ianucci, who you’ll know best for iconic political satire The Thick Of It and its HBO spin-off VEEP as well as his work with Steve Coogan on several iterations of Alan Partridge.
Ianucci’s other feature films, In The Loop, which was basically The Thick Of It goes to Washington, DC, and The Death Of Stalin, which was a black comedy about the final days of Joseph Stalin and the fallout after his sudden demise. Both were great fun, but they were comedies, pure and simple. The Personal History of David Copperfield takes both his writing and directing to a different level.
Dickens’ book follows Copperfield from birth to adulthood, through fortune and famine and love and loss, all the while contending with an eccentric array of relatives, dreadful scheming hangers-on, and a complex love life.
Born to a widowed mother, Copperfield is sent away to school only to return to find his mother has remarried. Bullied by his new step-father, he’s then packed off to work in a gin factory, which he does up until the day he is informed his mother has died. Desperate, he sets off to find his wealthy aunt Betsey Trotwood, who agrees to fund his education and make a life for himself.
As he grows into adulthood, Copperfield meets a string of characters, some of whom would wish him well, and lots who would exploit him and take everything he has.
Ianucci injects the story with a real madcap spirit and makes the most of characters who are full of quirks and eccentricity. There’s also a real feeling of kindness about the movie, a warmth that radiates every scene, even when the subject matter turns harrowing. Much of that is down to the casting.
The great and the good…
Despite a relatively meager (in Hollywood terms) budget of $15 million, Ianucci assembles quite a cast. Dev Patel plays the titular role and anchors everything superbly. This being his life story and all, he’s in every scene and shepherds us through every life change.
But the supporting cast is so, so good. Tilda Swinton is a quirky marvel as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie is a mystical scene-stealer as his eccentric cousin Mr. Dick, Ben Whishaw is a dastardly Uriah Heap, the man who will plot to steal Copperfield’s inheritance, Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Benedict Wong is a boorish, but hilarious Mr. Wickfield, and future Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power star Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spendlow is a shrill, but strangely hilarious presence.
The cast is ginormous and Ianucci has chosen every role superbly.
Breathing new life….
Somehow, Ianucci crafted a light, funny, kind, and utterly heartswelling comedy-drama out of a 624-page tome that many scholars read as Dickens sounding off about the inequalities of British society into a neat under two hour package.
It’s one of my favorite movies of recent years and I highly, highly recommend you catch it before it's gone from HBO Max.
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