David Copperfield and Little Women, published less than 20 years apart and each concerning aspirant young writers making their way in the world, share a close relationship in cinema too. In the early 1930s, the producer David O Selznick mounted handsome versions of them, both directed by George Cukor. Selznick’s affection for the books prompted the screenwriter Ben Hecht to wonder if the producer had stopped reading at the age of 12.
That cinematic kinship continues today, with Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield arriving a month after Greta Gerwig’s smart, spirited take on Louisa May Alcott’s novel. In each case the process of writing has been foregrounded so that the main characters’ transformation of life into art becomes part of the material. Gerwig’s picture ends with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) presenting for publication a manuscript called Little Women – effectively making herself the author of the film we have just watched. Iannucci and his regular co-writer Simon Blackwell also highlight the formation of Copperfield (Dev Patel) as a novelist: his gift for mimicry, the turns of phrase he scribbles on the scraps of paper that form a collage under the end credits. The movie is bookended by scenes of Copperfield in front of a theatre audience, as though this is but one stop on a promotional book tour. As he begins speaking, he turns and enters the images projected onto the back of the stage, running into them and across fields in time to attend his own birth, no matter that the medium of cinema is still half a century away from being a reality.
That’s typical of the fluidity of the movie, which doesn’t bother to disguise the higgledy-piggledy nature of the book. It follows Copperfield from childhood, when he is torn from his mother by her sadistic new husband, Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), and sent to live with the cheerily debt-ridden Micawbers (Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher), to his young adulthood, in which he falls on the mercy of his twitchy great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), and attempts to better himself.
The film is nothing if not brisk. To hasten the action along, Iannucci resorts on occasion to simply removing pieces of the set to reveal the next one lurking behind; a sheet of tarpaulin whisked away before our eyes transports us from a poky London slum to a field in France. Some of the scene changes are positively Gilliamesque: at one point, Murdstone’s hand reaches in through the roof of a room where the boy is playing, while at another a carriage and horses are shown thundering through Copperfield’s bedroom like the knight on his steed in Time Bandits. The montage in which Copperfield sees his sweetheart Dora (Morffyd Clark) wherever he looks – her vanilla curls frame the scabby face of a passing coachman and even adorn the dome of St Paul’s – has more than a touch of Powell and Pressburger about it: think of Wendy Hiller in her wedding dress getting married to a factory in I Know Where I’m Going!
This breeziness in the storytelling extends to the casting by Sarah Crowe. No reference is made to Copperfield’s racial difference from his family or to the fact that his classmate Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who is white, has a mother (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who is black, or that Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), also black, is the daughter of Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), who has east Asian ancestry and a Lancastrian burr. Iannucci has said that the light-bulb moment came when he imagined how fine Patel could be as Copperfield, and it’s true that the actor is a winning presence even if his flapping self-deprecation sometimes makes Hugh Grant seem like Robert Mitchum. He does at least have reserves of anger and indignation, which surface when he’s squaring up to the grasping Uriah Heep, played by Ben Whishaw as a human oil slick.
The casting is memorable all the way to the margins: Fisayo Akinade shrinks with embarrassment as a classmate whose comic riffs fail where Copperfield’s succeed and Anna Maxwell Martin reprises the exhausted, knife-edge chirpiness she perfected on the BBC comedy Motherland. Hiring Clark to play both Copperfield’s mother and Dora makes only a negligible impression, though the physical similarity between Capaldi as Mr Micawber and Hugh Laurie as Betsey’s cousin Mr Dick turns those characters into something like long-lost twins – appropriately enough given the dependent roles they come to play in Copperfield’s life.
It’s remarkable that there is nothing in Iannucci’s picture that is nearly as distressing as Copperfield’s caning at the hands of Murdstone in Cukor’s 1935 version, an incident which barely even registers here. But then from the costume and production design, which pit checks against stripes against bold blocks of colour, to Zac Nicholson’s constantly careering camerawork that is liable to cause seasickness, the dial is set firmly to “romp”. “Digs for joy, that boy,” observes Copperfield’s beloved nursemaid Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). “Finds it, too.” Much the same can be said of the film, even if it could have withstood a shade more dirt on the shovel.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG)
dir: Armando Iannucci
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people