The Wonderful World of David Copperfield

Sunday, August 23

By Jacqueline Thom

Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is not to be confused with the illusionist David Copperfield, though the two create equally magical worlds. Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell pair up to create a wholly charming take on the Dickens classic—the first spin on his book in a 100 years—that shines with Copperfield's contagious imagination and perseverance.

Though the The Personal History of David Copperfield premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival nearly a year ago, the timing of its U.S. release couldn't have been better. Being able to watch such a positive piece that is lacking in any real stakes is a breath of fresh air when all we want is an escape from this pandemic. Jairaj Varsani plays an adorable young version of David as he grows up under the care of his mother and maid in the idyllic English countryside. Immediately, he is attracted to the magic of language, possessing an empathic ability to remember phrases and quirks of those with strong personalities. This aspect of his life—his fascination with other people, and the stories he creates from such experiences with them—forms the basis for the film as David starts out onstage in a packed theater, telling the story of his life. Dev Patel is a bright-eyed adult Copperfield, his tall frame fluidly conveying youthfulness, wonder, energy, and strength of spirit.

Just like in Dickens' book, David walks listeners through his life up until now. Though he is still young in the movie compared to his middle age in the novel, there is no lack of drama and comedy in his story. We meet a large cast of characters that make appearances again and again in David's life, influencing how he perceives himself and ultimately matures. All throughout, his belief in the goodness of others never diminishes, and his willingness to help others is what allows David to easily become a scene-stealer. 

Second to the pure wholesomeness of David Copperfield is its immensely diverse casting. Actors of all backgrounds were in this film, without regard for staying "consistent" to the times. Pay no mind to the fact that the family accountant is Asian (Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield), or that his daughter is black (Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes Wickfield), or that Dev Patel plays the son of a white woman (Morfydd Clark as Clara Copperfield). In the most simplistic way, the colorblind casting makes for an even more enjoyable experience where Iannucci (a writer-director known for his biting humor) ignores tradition and casts solely for chemistry and talent. No character was the same, and having them played by an ensemble of diverse background is exciting, setting the bar ever higher when it comes to casting for period pieces. 

Also against the trend of period pieces was Iannucci and co-writer Blackwell's decision to make David's story more interactive. In the opening, we literally see him plant his theater audience in the fields of his childhood home as a walks away from the podium and strides towards The Rookery, his place of birth. It is this ease with which we are able to transition between times and places that grounds us in a world that is dramatically more simple and optimistic than we are used to. Couple this with composer Christopher Willis' transcendent orchestral pieces for the film, and viewers are set up for a very pleasant watch full of shenanigans and laughter.

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