Director: Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, The Death of Stalin); Adapted by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell from the Charles Dickens novel.
Plot: Following the life story of David Copperfield (Dev Patel), a young man who comes from a life of poverty in Yarmouth, England, who slowly works his way up the social scale, doing various menial labor but eventually hobnobbing among high society while keeping his actual poverty a secret. Along the way, he meets all sorts of strange and eccentric characters from all classes, many of whom will become the characters within the stories he writes.
[Caveat: This movie was watched on a laptop screen with ear buds, rather than in a theatrical setting where the work by everyone involved could truly be appreciated and analyzed.]
From the opening scene of Copperfield reading from his memoir to a packed theater, the work of Production Designer Cristina Casali — reuniting with Iannucci after both The Death of Stalin and In the Loop — is front and center without an obvious way to discern how many of the distinctive environments were built on a soundstage vs. being actual interiors of existing locations. The designs, including a boathouse that comes from out of young Copperfield’s imagination but then becomes a real entity later in the film, helps smooth the transition between what is really happening in Copperfield’s life and the fictionalized versions he puts to paper. Every section of the film, introduces another great location, dressed quite fantastically which helps pull you into the world of Dickens, as if you were reading one of his books.
It’s almost cliché to draw too much attention to the costumes in a period movie like this one, but there’s a reason these movies have been dubbed “costume dramas,” and that’s because for better or worse, costumes are everything. The work by Costume Designers Suzie Harman (another Death of Stalin returnee) and Robert Worley (The Grand Budapest Hotel) not only perfectly captures the times but also imbues the class and character of everyone Copperfield interacts with over the course of his life. Maybe there aren’t costumes that really jump out (as might be the case when royalty is involved) but you immediately get some idea of where each of the characters Copperfield encounters comes from, and it allows the fine cast to really find their characters.
Hair and Makeup
As much as with the costumes, two-time Emmy nominee Karen Hartley-Thomas’s hair and make-up team do everything to make it fairly obvious where each of the characters in Copperfield’s circle stands in terms of wealth and class. Iannucci’s decision to cast the talented Patel as the lead, meant he could also cast actors of different ethnicities in key roles around him, whether it’s Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield or Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter Agnes. The fact that David’s best friend Jim (Aneurin Barnard) has a mother played by Nigerian-born Nikki Amuka-Bird doesn’t make a whit of difference, since the hair and make-up team helps normalize that fact. It also helps to give Ben Whishaw a particularly ghastly hairstyle to make his Uriah Heep, essentially Copperfield’s nemesis, even more bothersome whenever he turns up.
This is a fine-looking film overall, but the subtle camerawork and lighting choices made by DP Zac Nicholson (The Death of Stalin) helps showcase the amazing work done by everyone mentioned above. Much of the film takes place in daylight but Nicholson still finds a way to make every scene seem warm and welcoming, while also bringing out the color palettes chosen by Casali and her team. This is particularly noticeable in the opening scene but also in other scenes when Copperfield faces adversity that’s subtly nuanced by the lighting choices.
The first time you’ll notice the key role editing plays in Iannucci’s work is from the very first flashback scene where the title character is being born, intercut with his aunt Mrs. Trotwood (Tilda Stanton) rushing to his mother’s aid. It’s the type of clever quick-cut editing that adds so much to a scene that might not necessarily be funny on its own. That is very much the case throughout the film. When you have actors like Swinton and Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi all around Patel offering their thoughts and commentary, having editors like Mick Audsley and Peter Lambert makes all the difference in keeping things from becoming too zany, manic or even confusing.
Iannucci continues his run with Christopher Willis, his go-to composer from Veep and The Death of Stalin, and Wills continues to do an unmistakably wonderful job embellishing Iannucci’s natural timing with soaring orchestral music that helps set the mood and tone. The music essentially creates a sense of time but keeps everything from veering too far either into maudlin drama or silly slapstick. The whole movie is fairly even-handed and far less like what we’ve seen from Iannucci in the past, maybe since he didn’t want to distract too much from his Dickensian storytelling. Willis’ score emphasizes this fact perfectly since it sets the period and tone but never tries to overpower the dialogue.
While The Personal History of David Copperfield might not be quite as witty or even as snarky as the comedy for which Iannucci has made a name for himself, it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Dickens otherwise, one that’s clearly defined by the fine work in production and costume design, as well as cinematography and score. Working with many of the crafts people from previous works, Iannucci and his team find the perfect balance of traditional period wear and locations without making a film that ever necessarily feels staid or dated. I’m not sure if the movie is quite on par with Emma. (a similar take on Jane Austen from earlier in the year), but it’s almost as enjoyable. If you’re not a Dickens aficionado, Iannucci’s able and seemingly effortless adaptation should help inure you to the sometime ponderous Dickensian style of storytelling.