Of all the writers’ works to adapt to film, there are few more prolific than Charles Dickens, maybe William Shakespeare beats him to the crown, but it’s a close run thing. Just think of how many adaptations of A Christmas Carol exist alone, there’s enough of those knocking about to keep a cinema running for years, but that’s not his only work adapted.
Oliver Twist has been adapted multiple times for screens both big and small, there was a trend for television adaptations back in the 90’s that saw tales like Nicholas Nickleby, and Great Expectations both making the journey into our living rooms.
In fact, scant months ago I happened upon a TV adaptation for the tale which this film gets its inspiration: David Copperfield. Far from being a tale about an American illusionist, it is a tale of rags-to-riches (then back to rags) that occupies a lot of Victorian-era stories.
To just label it a ‘rags-to-riches’ piece is doing it somewhat of a disservice however, as the structure of the plot is a lot more complicated; originally being published as a serial story, printed in newspapers, it has a few twists and turns that would have lead readers at the time waiting with baited breath for the next installment; but which can seem in the future somewhat disjointed.
This adaptation of the story comes to us from Armando Iannucci, the man responsible for the political satire The Thick of It, and this can be seen in his screenplay, which tries to balance a slightly surreal humour with its period setting, something with which it sometimes struggles.
I can attribute this to a gulf in the two writing styles; as the film tries to have its cake and eat it at times, trying to mix the more Victorian-era language with Iannucci’s signature humour, sometimes the surrealism of the juxtaposition is funny enough in itself to carry the concept, but at other times they go together about as well as a KKK member and a Motown concert.
This method of writing also leaves gulfs in the story that tend to sag a little bit in the middle, leaving yawning chasms in the narrative where nothing seems to be happening and the films sense of whimsy abandons it.
This is a shame because there are some things done in this film that I like quite a lot. For example how it is structured as David telling the story through narrative while being present in the events as they happen, specifically when discussing his childhood, hearkening back to the sections in A Christmas Carol with the ghosts, he wanders about his past, retelling his story, and this narrative structure is expanded upon with some very imaginative scene transitions.
The characters are also an aspect of the film I enjoyed. Particularly where effort is made to make them more whimsical. A good example of this is Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie) a pair of genuinely eccentric characters who lend the film the main bulk of its comedic surrealism.
Not all of the characters are as well-realised I grant you. In particular Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) and James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) who resemble such broad stereotypes and are given little reason to be as awful as they are, but do so anyway. They aren’t developed enough to give them reason, they’re just there, and I feel more could be done with them.
The acting all around is impressive though, and I don’t blame the performers for their under-cooked characters. The choice of colourblind casting in an historical setting is a brave one, but a decision that I think works well. It helps set it apart from the usual adaptations, and what’s more all those cast here fit their role greatly.
I’ve liked Dev Patel for quite a while, so it’s nice to see him get a leading role in a sizeable production such as this, and he does an admirable job making material that we are all familiar with seem fresh and exciting again. Peter Capaldi (another personal favourite of mine) also crops up with an eccentric character, who brings more levity to proceedings, but does tend to get lost in the mix.
As for film-making techniques, there was some interesting things done with the structure of the story as I say, the narration, the scene changes, there’s also some instances wherein a piece of the background is used to project a scene happening elsewhere in the story, an intriguing use of blank space that really helps bridge the narrative and make it seem more than the usual paint-by-number adaptation of a classic.
As a whole, this film can be a complete mess at times, with tone and writing bouncing wildly between free-spirited and whimsical to stiff and familiar. But there’s enough life in the characters and the occasional glimpses of Iannucci’s usual rapier-sharp dialogue.
It does fall into some traps that a lot of its fellow re-tellings do; it seems afriad to push the envelope too much and can, as a consequence, feel very ‘safe’. Potential was there to rewrite and re-fashion a classic story into something new and fresh, and while evidence of that is here, it can be lost beneath the waves of the familiar period tropes.
In conclusion then, it very much depends on what you’re looking for as to whether you’ll enjoy A Personal History of David Copperfield (incidentally, I really dislike the title, it feels like I’m trying to prise it through my teeth). If you’re an old Dickens fan, you’ll likely be put off by the flights of fancy the film goes on, for an Iannucci regular you’ll find it old-hat and lacking the teeth his work usually exhibits; but if you find yourself somewhere in the middle, like me, you’ll at least find SOME things to enjoy, even if the film is a bit flabby around the edges.