Producers: Kevin Loader and Armando Iannucci Director: Armando Iannucci Screenplay: Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell Cast: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Jairaj Varsani, Paul Whitehouse, Darren Boyd, Gwendoline Christie, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Anthony Welch and Benedict Wong Distributor: Searchlight Films
There is unquestionably a good deal of humor in Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” but few readers are likely to describe it is the knockabout farce it’s become in Armando Iannucci’s streamlined, fleet, utterly unorthodox adaptation. With the title innocuously expanded, the result has a bit of the flavor of Tony Richardson’s film of “Tom Jones,” but Henry Fielding’s novel invited such treatment, while Dickens’ really doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean that the film is unpleasant or disastrous—Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell certainly provide some funny lines—merely that it’s an engaging but simplistic gloss on a vastly more complicated literary work. Students looking for a viewable version of “Copperfield” to serve as a source for a paper on the book in lieu of actually reading it are advised to look elsewhere. (The 1999 British two-part mini-series wouldn’t be a bad choice, especially since it features Daniel Radcliffe as the young hero—which should appeal to fans of Harry Potter, another orphaned youngster who goes through a series of adventures. In a pinch George Cukor’s 1935 MGM film would also serve, though it also omits some episodes, like the
entire stay of young David at the Salem House boarding school, which is also excised here, requiring the relocation of David’s meeting with James Steerforth to later in the narrative.)
One of the notable elements of the film is its nonchalant diversity in casting, beginning with Dev Patel’s grown-up David. He appears at the very beginning, addressing a Victorian audience in a theatre auditorium, much as the author did during his lifetime, to discuss his life. Without much ado the script rushes into the book’s first chapter, “I Am Born,” in the process introducing his widowed mother Clara (Morfydd Clark, who also plays Dora Spenlow, with whom David becomes infatuated later in the story), her loyal maid Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and David’s oddball aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton).
There quickly follows the pleasant introduction of young David (Jairaj Varsani) to Peggotty’s brother Daniel (Paul Whitehouse) and his adopted nephew Ham (Anthony Welsh) and niece Emily (Aimee Kelly), and his much less pleasant one to stepfather Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and his sister Jane (Gwendoline Christie). The boy is shortly sent off to work in a London bottle factory (the Salem House interlude having been removed), where he lodges with the loquacious, Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his clan until, some time later and now played by Patel, he learns of his mother’s death and makes his way to his aunt’s.
There he is warmly welcomed, not only by Betsey but also by her dotty cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), with whom he easily bonds. He also encounters Betsey’s perpetually tipsy lawyer Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) and his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) before going off to boarding school and meeting Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) as well as Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw), Whitfield’s obsequious but ambitious clerk. From there David goes off to study as a proctor, falling for Dora (Clark again), the (here) goofy daughter of his boss.
In the last act Iannucci and Blackwell work hard to tie together the main plot threads of Dickens’ mosaic, staged at a breathless, often hectic, pace (the editing is by Mick Audsley and Peter Lambert). There’s David’s unwise introduction of Steerforth to the Peggotty clan and the cad’s seduction of Emily, along with Aunt Betsey’s financial ruination and its consequences for David’s living arrangements; Whitfield’s falling under the thumb of the unscrupulous Heep; and David’s emergence as a successful writer, as well as his realization that it is Agnes, not Dora, whom he loves (his marriage to the latter, and her death, are written out). Of course, the ending of the novel is preserved, even if it seems rushed in this case. (Indeed, the film sometimes moves so quickly that viewers unacquainted with the book might get a bit lost.)
The swerves and shortcuts taken by the adapters won’t likely be approved of by lovers of the novel, and the expansion of Micawber’s role (who shows up, for instance, for what amount to a cadenza at David’s boarding school) is problematic; yes, he’s an amusing fellow, and Capaldi obviously relishes playing him, but there’s a music-hall quality to the character here, and his underlying poignancy is muted. The transformation of Dora into a dim bulb is also troublesome, especially since Clark tries too hard to be funny.
On the other hand Swinton and Laurie make a fine comic team as Betsey and Mr. Dick, and Whishaw combines unctuousness and malice nicely as Heep (the scenes with Lynn Hunter as Mrs. Heep are especially fine). By contrast the Peggottys are given relatively short shrift, though both Cooper and Whitehouse are excellent, and the same is true of the Murdstones (whom Boyd and Christie play surprisingly straight, given how Iannucci deals with other characters). Barnard makes a suitably oily Steerforth, though Nikki Amuka-Bird is given little to do as his snooty mother.
As for Patel, he certainly holds nothing back as David. His performance is frantic and unsubtle, as though he were pressured by Iannucci to get laughs even when the material is least inspired—as in an impromptu boxing match with an old rival from the bottle factory, which has a tired, predictable feel.
Whatever the flaws of adaptation and execution, though, the film is handsomely mounted, with an opulent production design by Cristina Casella and costumes by Suzie Harmon and Robert Worley, and widescreen cinematography by Zac Nicholson that uses the locations and sets well. There’s also an agreeable score by Christopher Willis.
Dickens’ “David Copperfield” is a work of light and shade. Many previous adaptations have emphasized its seriousness to the detriment of the humor; this one so overplays the latter that the former is unduly minimized. As a slapstick take on the novel, Iannucci’s film is often enjoyable, but in pursuit of laughs it shortchanges Dickens’ darker themes.