Diverse cast, soaring spirit, fuel joyous 'Personal History of David Copperfield'
Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel may not be the most obvious choice to play David Copperfield, one of Charles Dickens' most beloved and most autobiographical heroes. But casting the popular Patel is but one of many inspired and audacious choices made by Armando Iannucci in his smart and highly entertaining adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Director Iannucci and his co-scenarist and frequent writing partner, Simon Blackwell, are best known for sly political satires The Death of Stalin, and TV's Veep, created by Iannucci. In their hands, Dickens' classic coming-of-age tale gets and energizing makeover that is absolutely true to this spirit of the novel. While unapologetically diverse in its casting, it never feels unduly PC, and is often brilliant in the originality of its storytelling.
|Patel as Copperfield: Noteworthy|
David's idyllic childhood with his loving young widowed mother ends abruptly when she marries grim Murdstone, who arrives with his equally sour sister (an unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie). The spirited child David (Jairaj Varsani) is banished to London to work in a grimy factory. He's a teenager (now played by Patel) when he learns his mother has died, and walks all the way to Dover to throw himself on the mercy of his only relative, the formidable Aunt Betsey Trotwood (a delightful Tilda Swinton.)
|Swinton, Patel, Laurie, Eleazar: al fresco|
Meanwhile, the narrative strides boldly forward through Dickens' busy plot, hitting most of its emotional high notes, yet boisterously funny throughout. Quick and clever editing keeps the pictures moving with smooth dissolves and ingenious expositions. When David falls instantly in love with porcelain, childlike Dora (Morfydd Clark), daughter of the lawyer who employs him, he sees her face painted on a pub sign in the street, and her blonde curls adorning a passing cart driver. To keep the narrative moving, the filmmakers even have the nerve to write out a key character, at her request. ("I really don't fit in.") I doubt if Dickens would approve, but it's a smart way to keep the movie's tone consistent and focused.
The movie looks terrific, from teeming London streets to the fresh, open countryside to the seaside. Motherly Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), David's former nurse, lives with her family under the upturned hull of a boat on the beach at Yarmouth. (A magical place vividly realized by production designer Cristina Casali.) In addition to the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick, David's surrogate family includes his aunt's tippling but well-meaning solicitor, Whitfield (Benedict Wong), and his daughter, Agnes (played with good-humored warmth by Rosalind Eleazar).
Patel plays David with the right balance of open-hearted exuberance and dawning maturity. The non-traditional casting also highlights the story's core question of identity. David earns many nicknames on his journey through life — Davy, Trot, Daisy, Doady — which are more expressions of who others need him to be than who he actually is. It's a nifty little victory when this David finally discards his nicknames to proclaim himself simply David Copperfield— the hero (at last) of his own life.