Mul­ti­cul­tural cast, clever de­vices max­i­mize the novel’s en­ter­tain­ment value

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@suntimes.com | @RichardERo­eper

Styl­ized pe­riod-piece pics are all the fash­ion these days, from “The Favourite” to “Emma” to “Ra­dioac­tive” to “Tesla” to the glo­ri­ously cre­ative and mul­ti­cul­tur­ally cast “The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field,” in which di­rec­tor/ co-writer Ar­mando Ian­nucci (cre­ator of HBO’s “Veep”) transforms Charles Dick­ens’ mas­ter­ful but of­ten dour and cum­ber­some 624-page Vic­to­rian novel into a bril­liant piece of en­ter­tain­ment that of­ten plays like “Alice in Wonderland” as in­ter­preted by Monty Python.

“The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field” is ac­tu­ally faith­ful in its adap­ta­tion of the main char­ac­ters and ma­jor plot de­vel­op­ments in the novel, with the ti­tle char­ac­ter (played by Dev Pa­tel in an­other in a long line of strong per­for­mances) nar­rat­ing his own story, which is ren­dered with the help of visu­ally in­no­va­tive tran­si­tional de­vices, e.g., green-screen style back­drops, clev­erly con­ceived graph­ics and, at one, point, a gi­ant hand reach­ing right into a scene to scram­ble things. (Ku­dos to cine­matog­ra­pher Zac Ni­chol­son for in­fus­ing the film with beau­ti­ful and mem­o­rable vi­su­als.)

In early flash­back se­quences fea­tur­ing a de­light­ful Jairaj Varsani as young David Cop­per­field, we meet many of the adults who will be­come sem­i­nal fig­ures (for bet­ter or worse) in David’s life for years to come, in­clud­ing his cruel step­fa­ther, Ed­ward Murd­stone (Dar­ren Boyd), Ed­ward’s hor­ri­ble sis­ter Jane (Gwen­do­line Christie), the warm and won­der­ful if daffy house­keeper Peg­gotty (Daisy May Cooper) and David’s fan­tas­ti­cally ec­cen­tric Great Aunt Bet­sey (Tilda Swin­ton), who has had such hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ences with men and boys through­out her life that she flies into a fit of mad­ness when young David is born. An­other MALE! God for­bid!

Although young David en­dures hard­ship and poverty through much of his life, telling us, “I have been more mis­er­able than I thought any­body could be­lieve,” the tone re­mains rel­a­tively light even in the dark­est of scenes, e.g., when the loath­some Ed­ward Murd­stone drags the boy up­stairs for a beat­ing and a slap­stick phys­i­cal bit en­sues. But there’s room in­side the com­edy for some gen­uinely mov­ing se­quences, as when David learns his mother has died and the fu­neral al­ready took place with­out his knowl­edge, and he nearly de­stroys the bot­tling fac­tory where he’s been toil­ing in mis­ery.

As a young man, David lives with a va­ri­ety of off­beat hosts, who call him by dif­fer­ent names in a run­ning joke straight out of the novel. He’s “Davy,” “Daisy,” “Trot­wood,” “Doady,” etc., etc., though he fi­nally as­serts him­self by pro­claim­ing, “I am David Cop­per­field!” Dur­ing David’s time at the coun­try es­tate of Aunt Bet­sey, who is ob­sessed with keep­ing don­keys off her prop­erty, he meets and be­comes great friends with Mr. Dick (Hugh Lau­rie in per­haps his most charm­ing per­for­mance ever), a child­like fig­ure who loves to fly kites and be­lieves the thoughts of the be­headed King Charles are now oc­cu­py­ing his brain. He’s also in­tro­duced to the lawyer and fi­nancier Mr. Wick­field (Bene­dict Wong), who is al­ways look­ing for an ex­cuse to have a tip­ple, and Mr. Wick­field’s daugh­ter, Agnes (Ros­alind Eleazar in a win­ning turn), who is clearly smit­ten with David and will­ing to stand by his side as con­fi­dante and friend un­til the daft lad wakes up and re­al­izes that in true ro­man­tic com­edy fash­ion, the love of his life has been right there all along.

Ben Whishaw is suit­ably creepy as the unc­tu­ous Uriah Heep, the schem­ing clerk who tries to de­stroy David and his fam­ily. Peter Ca­paldi steals ev­ery scene he’s in as the tragi-comic char­ac­ter of Mr. Mi­caw­ber, who puts a cheer­ful spin on his ever-dire cir­cum­stances. (When David spots Mr. Mi­caw­ber liv­ing on the streets of Lon­don, Mi­caw­ber says it’s quite the grand ad­ven­ture be­fore ad­mit­ting: “We do pri­mar­ily ex­ist al fresco.”) The only dud in the pro­ceed­ings is David’s first wife Dora (Morfydd Clark), who is harm­less but quite dim and in­suf­fer­able, and gives us no rea­son to be­lieve David would fall head over heels for her. (Even Dora doesn’t get it. She urges David to write her out of the per­sonal his­tory he’s been keep­ing, as she has no real place in it.)

“The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field” is filled with clever if ob­vi­ous com­men­tary on in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized class snob­bery. There’s some heavy stuff about men­tal ill­ness here and there, most no­tably in the sto­ry­line in­volv­ing the seem­ingly golden boy James Steer­forth (Aneurin Barnard), who be­comes de­spised for good rea­son but hates him­self more than any­one else pos­si­bly could. Mostly, though, the tone re­mains warm and hope­ful. This is one of the most en­ter­tain­ing movies of 2020.


Dev Pa­tel plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter in “The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field.”


Hugh Lau­rie (left) plays the child­like Mr. Dick, who be­friends David (Dev Pa­tel) dur­ing a stay with his Aunt Bet­sey (Tilda Swin­ton).

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