The Scottish director Armando Iannucci has filmed the sometimes quite dark Charles Dickens novel “David Copperfield” as a colorful, creative dance about the life of a dreamer. If this The Personal History of David Copperfield We reveal in our criticism whether it does more harm or good.
OT: The Personal History of David Copperfield (UK/USA 2019)
The plot summary
David Copperfield (Dev Patel) spends a happy childhood in Victorian England with his widowed mother Clara (Morfydd Clark). However, when he returns one day from visiting the relatives of his beloved housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), he learns that his mother has now married Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd). This quickly turns out to be mean and cruel – and David’s presence in the house is obviously a thorn in his side. David is soon sent to London, where he has to do hard and extremely poorly paid work in a bottle factory. Years pass, David is now a young man when the news of his mother’s death reaches him. Deeply shaken, he flees the factory to his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who, together with her extremely eccentric roommate Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), helps him get back on his feet. But David’s journey is far from over, as all sorts of encounters with different people who don’t always want him well mean that his life is thrown into disarray several times. Despite all odds, David has one goal: he wants to become famous as a writer and do his part to make the world a better place.
No, not the magician! “David Copperfield – Once Rich and Back” is not about the magician of the same name, who has been touring around the world for many years and astonishing people with his tricks. But the New Jersey-born illusionist named himself after the very Charles Dickens character whose story is told by “The Death of Stalin” director Armando Iannucci in his reinterpretation of the mid-19th century bestseller. The novel, originally titled “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery”, is a real chunk with 624 pages, which are necessary in the case of the umpteen snags in the retelling of a fictional writer’s fate. After all, Charles Dickens came up with a truly eventful life path for his protagonist, which Iannucci has now filmed in an equally exciting way. Two things stand out: Firstly, the tone of the book and the novel differ greatly. While the novel has a rather dramatic character and became one of the most powerful (young adult) books in world literature due to its intensive depiction of child abuse and fears, “David Copperfield – Once Rich and Back” has now become more of a comedy. On the other hand, some sections were significantly shortened, weighted differently or even omitted entirely. But Armando Iannucci uses his film to illustrate why different forms of media require different approaches – or at least can take the freedom to do so.
David Copperfield (Dev Patel) makes countless acquaintances in his life (here with Aneurin Barnard as Steerforth).
The poster for “David Copperfield – Once Rich and Back” is reminiscent of a circus. In the marketing department of the film, which was only called “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in the USA, the cards were played open from the start. In fact, the comedy, which still has many dramatic points, couldn’t be described better. “David Copperfield” is a circus – and one of the kind where you don’t have to worry about newly trained animals being paraded in the ring for the amusement of the audience. But how can it be that a novel that was so tragic in the original and so dark, especially in the early stages, ended up in the hands of screenwriter Simon Blackwell (“Four Lions”) and his co-writer Armando Iannucci has his audience’s laughing muscles in his sights without losing sight of the core of the story? The answer is simple: the emotional quintessence remains. In the film we also see first-hand how young David Copperfield (played as a child by Ranveer Jaiswal) is beaten up by his stepfather and gradually pushed out of the family under the helpless eyes of his loving mother. This is just as bad for David as it is for her, especially just as in the novel. However, it takes up a much smaller place in the film, as it works more as a rise story of a man who had a difficult time as a child and teenager, but never let himself be defeated and therefore became a real survivor.
“’David Copperfield – Once Rich and Back’ is like a circus – and one of the kind where you don’t have to worry about the fact that there are newly trained animals being performed in the ring for the amusement of the audience.”
Of course, that sounds hackneyed at first: classic “rags to riches” stories have always been an integral part of pop culture. But instead of focusing on the struggle that the protagonists have to achieve their goal, as in films like “The Pursuit of Happiness”, “One Chance” or “Slumdog Millionaire” (also starring Dev Patel). For a long time in “David Copperfield – Once Rich and Back” it is not at all clear what the main character is actually heading for; And this is not an omission, but the result of a typical one “The route is the goal”mentality that the filmmakers display here. So that if you don’t know the book, you won’t even notice which stages they leave out, the creatives pick out the most exciting, exciting and eventful phases of their hero’s life – and these are packed with strange characters and highly amusing anecdotes that make it seem absolutely believable that David Copperfield, despite his difficult childhood, later became such an optimistic, radiant man as Dev Patel embodies here. With his authentically cheerful, but at the right moments just as believably thoughtful performance, he once again qualifies for the Hollywood A-league – after his performances in “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” or “Chappie”, which would have flown under the radar due to the film’s quality It’s high time for that.
David loves flying kites with friends.
The eccentricity and playfulness in the character drawing and narrative style are reflected above all in the production. In one scene, David talks to a young African-American woman about her fate, which the makers want to illustrate in the form of a flashback. To fade from one scene to another, the background of the scene suddenly takes the shape of a large poster, which is carried away by the wind in the next second. Such gimmicks, reminiscent of Michel Gondry or even more so Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“David Copperfield” carries a lot of his magical insider tip “The Map of My Dreams”), make “David Copperfield – Once Rich and Back” not just varied, but above all one thing : really exciting. At some point you literally suspect that there is a new piece of production behind every corner – and the makers often keep this promise made at the beginning. “David Copperfield” is simply incredibly fun. Not least because everyone involved in the well-known ensemble, including quick-change artist Tilda Swinton (“Suspiria”) to Hugh “Doctor House” Laurie to “Doctor Who” star Peter Capaldi, have a lot of fun embodying all of the exciting characters.
“To fade from one scene to another, the background of the scene suddenly takes the form of a large poster, which is carried away by the wind in the next second.”
At the same time, the strength of the film and the actors also lies in helping scenes that require appropriate grounding due to their seriousness to achieve exactly that. At one moment, Laurie, alias Mr. Dick, is excitedly talking about how Charles I’s head must have lived on after his execution. In the next moment, the script devotes itself to David’s memories of his past with the same sincerity – even if in “David Copperfield” you have to laugh much more often than you swallow, you always believe Armando Iannucci’s love for his protagonist. And ultimately that’s exactly what it’s about.
Conclusion: Every second is an event: As a “rags to riches” story, Armando Iannucci doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But how he manages to turn the original, once conceived by Charles Dickens as a youth drama, into a playful comedy about an artist in life is a lot of fun and is always exciting thanks to the outstandingly creative production.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is expected to be shown in USA cinemas from September 10th.