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Film Editorial

London Film Festival Opening Night: The Personal History of David Copperfield
 

Director: Armando Iannucci

Stars: Dev Patel, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Rosalind Eleazar, Morfydd Clark, Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie
The 2019 London Film Festival gets off to a rousing start with this fun and frantic (almost too frantic) take on the Charles Dickens classic. Patel, leading a multi-racial cast, is the titular hero making his way through Victorian England, encountering the virtuous and not-so-virtuous poor and the capricious rich, while gradually learning to assert his identity.
Iannucci, in what is the first of many, not always entirely successful meta touches, has Copperfield reciting his story in a theatre, then popping up throughout observe and editorialize.  These playful and self-referential touches brings to mind Tony Richardson’s 1963 picture, the freewheeling Henry Fielding adaptation ‘Tom Jones’. This being Dickens there is darkness looming too, evidenced in the presence of Copperfield’s towering stepfather Murdstone (Boyd) and in the memorable depiction of poverty and homelessness in a ramshackle Victorian London, admirably recreated with minimal recourse to special effects.
Those looking for political satire from the man behind ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’ will be disappointed. Iannucci confessed at a post-screening talk that he wanted to do something upbeat which celebrated the family and friendship.
While some of the pathos and narrative nuance does get lost in the comic melee and truncated translation to feature length, the picture makes it up with a first rate and game cast, particularly, Ben Whishaw as the oleaginous but sinister social climber Uriah Heep (so accomplished is Whishaw that when the found-out character rails against the elites some of his barbs hit), Tilda Swinton as Copperfield’s heroically scatty aunt Betsey Trotwood, and Peter Capaldi as the debt-plagued Mr Micawber. One sequence, retooled from the book as a showcase for the character, in which Micawber poses as a school teacher and attempts to wing it through a Latin lesson is a comic masterclass.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is released in January 2020

 
David Willoughby