FilmSpace at London Film Festival: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Film critic Calum Cooper has gone south for the 63rd London Film Festival. Beginning his series of reviews while there is the festival’s opening film, and the latest film from legendary Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci.

It’s both a thrill and a privilege to be back in London for another London Film Festival. It was the joy of a lifetime coming here and representing CommonSpace last year, and I’m ecstatic that I get to do it again, sharing with you all some amazing upcoming films in the process. I hope to see titles like Knives Out, The Lighthouse, Waves, The Irishman, and many more while I am here. But, regardless of what I see and what I miss, festivals like this celebrate the best of modern cinema, and I endeavour to share in this via my reviews. Let’s get started.

The Personal History of David Copperfield – ★★★★☆

Opening this year’s London Film Festival is a surprisingly warm turn from director Armando Iannucci. I mean this in more ways than one: Iannucci is best known for deep political satires, whereas this is a vibrant adaptation of a Dickens novel. However, this is still a distinctively Iannucci film - one that delights in new ways. If In the Loop and The Death of Stalin showcased humanity at its most selfish or incompetent, then The Personal History of David Copperfield depicts humanity at its most empathetic and merry.

Dev Patel is David Copperfield, a Dickensian character many have likened to Dickens himself. He is born to an idyllic life in the 19th century, but grows up loving the world and people around him regardless of status. A particular hobby of his is writing down what people say to him or what they look like to him, inspiring a potential future in writing. But, as we know, life is never straightforward, and the film shows this by taking us through every twist, turn, and hardship David must deal with from his youth to adult years. Portraying the colourful characters with whom David interacts, the film features a distinctive ensemble cast, including Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Benedict Wong and Ben Whislaw.

This is quite the departure for Iannucci, whose previous features are as cynical as they are hilarious, although Iannucci assured us in the Q&A after the film that he is quite a jolly individual. In the Loop and The Death of Stalin are brilliant films, but both have contemptuous outlooks on their settings. They don’t like having to revel in their politics, and if anything are stunned that such things existed to begin with.

Stylish in presentation, optimistic by nature, and bearing the sharp observations only Iannucci could write, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an adaptation that feels as epic as its source material.

David Copperfield, on the other hand, embraces itself with affectionate benevolence. Its environment presents its own challenges, but we can somehow find the beauty or thrill in the spaces in between via David’s perspective. While it is primarily concerned with the life of the titular individual, its wider themes showcase community and strength of character, things David comes to learn by watching the struggles and ingenuity of those he meets. Whether it’s Capaldi’s sly tricks as the cunning Mr Micawber, Swinton’s rambunctious oddities as his aunt Trotwood, or Laurie’s stellar ability to connect dots as the eccentric Mr Dick, David learns to navigate, and eventually celebrate, life through those he meets.

Yet our focus remains on David himself, who features in every scene. Early scenes of his youth are shot from a noticeably lower vantage point so as to make everything seem so much taller than they are. It reveals the intimidating nature of the world around us – and being in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, this world must’ve been particularly intimidating for youths. As David gets older, the cinematic playing field figuratively and literally becomes more even, but that feeling of wonder you get from seeing something new for the first time is ever present.

Which brings us to another area which separates the film from Iannucci’s past satires – its fantastical vibe, a stark contrast to his earlier work’s bleak sense of reality. Audacious colours and sets are in abundance across this film, many of which David himself revels in. As a child he lives in a mansion, yet an upside down boat made into a home is what he sees as true art. Iannucci uses Zac Nicholson’s cinematography and the variously creative sets to transport us to a place almost fairy tale-like. This is a world we enjoy spending time in, with a community of people we adore being around. It’s a quality shared with Paul King’s Paddington films, and all the better for it.

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One thing it has in common with Iannucci’s past work is its unwavering sense of humour. It has some of the bluntness of In the Loop or the absurdity of The Death of Stalin, but much of its comedy is visual as well as verbal. Set-pieces and Mick Audsley’s editing are big components in the film’s comedic prowess, exemplified by an especially funny scene where we watch Tilda Swinton kick a donkey from through a window. It brings a lot of diversity into the film’s comedy, while still maintaining Iannucci’s usual frankness and literary brutality, all in the name of painting a world where community and kinship can overpower even the darkest of shared experiences.

Keeping all of this tied together are strong performances from the cast, most of all Dev Patel, Iannucci’s first and only choice for this character. Patel has proven time and time again that he’s one of this generation’s defining actors, and here he is able to elegantly balance the hardships of his meandering life with the childlike glee he feels every time he meets a new person or sees a new place. The supporting actors are all gems in their own ways, but Patel is the one that remains spotlighted with his charismatic presence.

Add it up and you have a film that’s a surprising change in tune for Iannucci, but one that is nevertheless a joy to get lost in. Stylish in presentation, optimistic by nature, and bearing the sharp observations only Iannucci could write, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an adaptation that feels as epic as its source material. And you can bet that it has as many laughs as it does timely themes. Frankly, it’s a cracking start to this year’s festival.

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