An image from the Dickens novel "The Personal History of David Copperfield"

‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ is a coming of age classic


I knew very little of David Copperfield before going into the cinema. While I’ve read some of Dickens’ works, that was not one of them. It’s the sort of book I’ll get around to eventually, but so many other books are on my eternal ‘to read’ list that it simply hasn’t been a burning priority. However, I was aware that Dickens was defined by social exploration, a theme that perfectly appeals to me in whatever medium. Plus, the film had been written and directed by Armando Iannucci of ‘The Thick of It’, a truly brilliant political series. All the elements were in place for a truly rollicking and memorable couple of hours.

I am most pleased to write ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ turned out that way, it perfectly captures 19th century British history.

I am most pleased to write ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ turned out that way, it perfectly captures 19th century British history. The audience is located right in the 1800s period, another world compared to our cosmopolitan attitudes of the 21st century. Whether it’s the general style of traditions, non-existent technology or antiquated remarks, there is an authentic sense of the past running through every scene. From each of the characters is almost an understanding of their social position within the wider hierarchy, even if it’s not to their own personal pleasure. It is a far cry from the modern age of social mobility and self-improvement.

Our narrative follows one David Copperfield. Indeed, the film audience are mimicking the theatre audience watching Copperfield (Dev Patel) reciting his own history. I found the narrative structure almost mirrors that of Alan Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’ by having a David that writes, recalling the events, and a David that lives, experiencing the events on our behalf.

We go from his childhood, where writing David gets to witness his own birth, and follow his many successes and failings within British society. There is almost a form of reassurance; the audience are aware Copperfield has come out the other side mostly unscathed. Throughout the film, it’s evident Copperfield is weaving fictional aspects into the ‘factual’ retailing of his life, which the film effectively portraying his wry literary wit.

Copperfield’s existence is defined by class. One’s position in life, thanks to the coincidences of birth, shapes their entire existence. Hardly any opportunities exist to move up the class ladder and improve the livelihood for an individual and their family. Luck and fate have never held more power with no mechanisms to improve the situation, unless you’re extremely wealthy already that is.

Born into a fair amount of money, young David (Jairaj Varsani) is taken by his nanny Peggotty (played by the fine Daisy May Cooper of ‘This Country’ fame) to see her family in Great Yarmouth. The contrast in lifestyles couldn’t be more different, with Mr Peggotty (Paul Whitehouse) living a frugal, aesthetic life on a boat house. Despite their evident lack of wealth, they all seem so happy and content, with talk in the family of engagement, marriage and joyous celebration.

The antithesis to David’s own life couldn’t be more different. The happiness and perfection have to cease, for otherwise there would be no plot. Thanks to his antagonist step father Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), Copperfield is sent away to London, departed from his mother at such a young age. His lack of control is absolute, with no chance for him or his mother to change the decision. He was off to London and that was that. From wealth comes the opportunity (or rather, the horror) of factory work constructing glass bottles. Workers are primarily children, with health and safety non-existent. There is something both comic and terrifying about the bottles precariously balanced on shelves, all ready to tip over with just a gentle push. Their presence is as precarious and uncertain as Copperfield’s future life chances.

Nonetheless, despite all the anguish Copperfield faces, individuals are still willing to give him a chance. At first, it’s the rather suspect Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) desperately hiding from bailiffs trying to take all his possessions. Thanks to Copperfield briefly tricking said bailiffs, he is taken in by the Micawber family, until, inevitably, their debts catch up with them. Then it is up to Copperfield’s wealthy aunt Betsy Trotwood (could there be a posher name?) played by Tilda Swinton, who gives Copperfield the opportunity to receive an education others could only dream of. With her is, shall we say, a rather eccentric lodger Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie), obsessed with flying a kite and the execution of King Charles I. It is thanks to David being at the centre of the story that we are able to meet all the mavericks that have come to shape his life.

Despite society’s transformation, the search for individual identity is just as relevant in the 21st century as the 19th century.

Times are hard. The wealth that the family hold just as easily disappears. There is no guarantee or certainty the their long term financial prospects are secure. David has little opportunity to discover who he really is, such is the volatility of the individuals he is living with and where his financial reliability comes from. While the presence of memorable individuals remain all around him, the search for who he truly is, a wish to be defined not by the names of others but proudly as David Copperfield is at the film’s heart. Despite society’s transformation, the search for individual identity is just as relevant in the 21st century as the 19th century.

Despite the hardships, some form of humour is never far away. Whether it’s David falling in love with Dora Spenlow (Morfydd Clark) and her dog or learning to embrace the world as slightly chaotic, there is ample time to remain appreciative of what people have and who is around them. Throughout the film, there are the dual battles of individual love opposing group loyalty, passion for Spenlow balancing duty to others. These complex themes are allowed to develop alongside the mood of rollicking jollity that remains present. There is seriousness throughout, but this doesn’t spoil Iannucci’s touch of flair and magic. While I had some criticism, for example the speed of travel between London and Great Yarmouth, given this was the age of horse and cart, and a financial dealing being far too quickly resolved, these were but minor criticisms that didn’t prevent my full enjoyment of the production.

The film’s conclusion reminded me of ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, where all the characters are united together, even those who have communicated on minimal occasions during the previous scenes. Everyone is reunited, there is a joy of coming together, recognising the future and feeling optimism. This is the perfect celebration of Dickens’ work and how its definition of the 19th century can be accessible to all. While Copperfield has gone through pain and toil, that he is able to recount his life in the written and verbal form shows that he has managed to overcome the struggles. He inherits immense wealth but with the perfect understanding of financial insecurities and the experience of the poorest of lifestyles. This comedic drama was a perfect addition to the coming of age fiction canon. Through the story was set nearly 200 years ago, the personal anguishes, struggles and history of David Copperfield are relevant to us all.

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