David Copperfield- film review

The more I think about Armando Iannuci’s adaptation of David Copperfield, the more I like it.

I left the cinema in a shock- the differences between book and film overwhelmed me- and I was reciting them enraptured to my companion- who had not read the book- and was slightly baffled at the vehemence of my emotions.

And then I slept on it. The next day, I kept analyzing and overanalyzing. I found my notebook from the first year of undergrad and looked through my careful and scrupulous notes, summarizing chapter by chapter the content of „David Copperfield”

And I kept thinking „It is clever. It is frightfully clever, what Ianucci has done”. And I would not mind seeing it again.

It also made me feel tempted to reread the book- which of course is high praise of a film adaptation of anything.

So what did Ianucci do? He cheated. He made Copperfield more obviously like Dickens than he is portrayed. In fact, he begins the whole story with David (played by Dev Patel) reading out his book to a theatre audience.It is the grown- up David who is present, Shandyesque, at the spectacle of his own birth.

Dev Patel only disappears briefly, when David is about 7. He returns to portray David as a teenager, leading those unacquainted with the book to draw some false conclusions. Why does this grown man need to be taken care of by his aunt? Why does he get sent to school?

Dev Patel makes the perfect “Daisy” – he combines a sort of handsomeness and charming naivety – which in my worse moments provokes me quite badly. As did the character of David in the novel….

All this metanarration is for the purpose of establishing David first and foremost as a writer and a storyteller. We see how he delights in words – as he is made to recite many a line of the novel highlighting both David’s writer’s skill at characterization and Ianucci’s delight at Dickens’s writing. It’s all very much metanarration. Frightfully clever.

I was pleased with the portrayal of David’s early childhood. Peggoty is fantastic, Mr Murdstone suitably murderous and Amy suitably meh. It is hard not to appreciate Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber, although I do feel he could have had some more time to show off the character’s quirks.

My absolute favourite casting decision has to be Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie as Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick. One would happily watch them playing in their own film. Both characters are played with humour and compassion which do their literary counterparts justice.

Another clever casting decision was to cast the same actress as Clara Copperfield and then later as Dora, (David’s first love).The weakness of both the female characters works as a parallel (as indeed I think it’s been done in literary criticism before)- and arguably explains David’s weakness for Dora (as someone associated with his mother).

My one quarrel would be that Jip, Dora’s dog, ought to be a Scottish Terrier, as he was in the book. But I suppose Iannucci decided that this contradicted Dora being painted as an image in white- and so he went for a maltese instead. Tut, tut.

I was confused by the scripting decisions regarding the Wickfields and Uriah Heep. Mr Wickfield’s alcoholism seems more of a joke than a problem in this film. Uriah seems oddly mistreated by his fellow human beings- bookwise, I seem to remember he deserved it. Agnes, well, doesn’t seem anything much. I did like her in the books- so I’m wondering if this is the result of scripting decisions or whether I’ve simply changed my mind. She was patient, kind and helpful. Here, she is mean to Uriah and only sympathetic to David.

Now for the spoiler alert:

The survival rate of the film characters is ever much higher than in the book. Suffice it to say, I was surprised more than once. In part it was Ianucci’s decision of a portraying the plot within a metanarrative that allows David Copperfield to simply “write a character out” within the bounds of the film plot itself. They don’t have to die – they simply disappear.

Another benefit of Iannucci’s distance to the plot is the ability to see the crueller bits of Dickens’s satire as simply inherent in David’s myopic vision of the world. Thus the comic one-dimensionality of Dickensian characters is due to them being literary characters in David’s /Dickens’s vision. The idealization of Steerforth and the angular qualities of Steerforth’s mother are in the film the effects of David’s far too vivid imagination. I suspect that though that would be the case for Steerforth in the books, the presentation of his mother would have simply been understood as “objective”- whatever that word means in a Dickens novel.

Anyhow, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

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