Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield
Proving that nothing has power like a great story, Hollywood routinely returns to classic literature to resurrect and retell new versions of beloved stories. Here at Cineluxe we’ve recently reviewed the latest versions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and to those we’ll add Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Counting this version, the Copperfield novel (which carries the cumbersome full title of The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) has been made and remade into movies and TV series more than a dozen times since 1911, including two animated versions.
Dickens admitted Copperfield was his favorite work, writing, “Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The story was originally published serially over 18 months and totaled more than 600 pages. Any time a work of that length is translated to a film-sized chunk—even one with Copperfield’s two-hour runtime—heavy edits are required. However, judging from Dickens’ verbose writing style—partly the nature of serialized writing, which was often paid by the word—much could be trimmed while still retaining the heart of the story.
The titular role of David Copperfield is played with terrific sincerity by Dev Patel. We follow the character’s life and tragedies from birth up through marriage, as he moves throughout England and slowly climbs his way up in society. (“You can’t take something from someone who has nothing!”)
COPPERFIELD AT A GLANCE
This latest filming of Dickens’ favorite novel condenses the book’s 600-plus pages into a two-hour runtime full of colorful characters and witty dialogue.
Images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout, with HDR deployed lightly to enhance the natural look of the visuals.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack sticks mainly to the front channels, but the surrounds are used occasionally to add ambience to naturalistic effects.
Patel is joined by a terrific supporting cast that really leans into playing the over-the-top side characters who wind in and out of Copperfield’s life. These include Hugh Laurie as the delightfully eccentric Mr. Dick, who is convinced that the thoughts of King Charles I are stuck in his head since Charles was beheaded; Benedict Wong as the alcohol-obsessed Mr. Wickfield (who “takes his wine with an enviable degree of enjoyment”); Ben Whishaw as the sniveling and class-obsessed Uriah Heep; as well as Tilda Swinson as David’s great aunt, the donkey-hating Betsey Trotwood; Peter Capaldi as the eternally yet optimistically in debt Mr. Micawber; Morfydd Clark, who plays both David’s mother Clara; and his first love interest, the eternally childish Dora Spenlow, who likes to carry around and speak via her puppy, Jip.
One of the film’s storytelling techniques is that Copperfield regularly recalls and mimics and then writes down quotes and snippets of conversations he has or overhears with these peculiar acquaintances, keeping these scraps of papers in a box he carries with him and later uses to turn into stories that he ultimately sells to make his way.
While I’ve yet to read the novel, the dialogue is so witty, sharp, and biting I wonder how much was lifted from Dickens’ text and how much is original. Lines like “I see my father’s gravestone shadowed by trees bending towards one another in the wind like giants whispering secrets” certainly feel true to Dickens’ flowery writing style.
While there is frequent humor, it is often subtle and restrained. Lines like Mr. Dick’s comment, “[Does she mean] to visit violence on the boy? Yes. She’s a remarkable woman. Very kind,” are typical of the type of humor to expect.
Details on the resolution of the transfer aren’t clear, but images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout. We are especially able to appreciate the bright outdoor scenes that offer countryside views for miles. The rocky beaches of Yarmouth show every stone in clear, individually outlined detail, and you can practically feel the texture of the bricks, stones, plaster, and wood that comprise the construction of various buildings.
The film uses a light touch with its HDR grading, which is used to create images that look consistently natural, with lots of rich, deep shadows and bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows. Deep, clean blacks are present when called on, such as at the bottle factory Copperfield works at in his youth.
The Kaleidescape transfer includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does a fine job presenting the film’s dialogue. While most of the audio is kept in the front of the room, the surrounds are used occasionally to add some convincing and scene-appropriate ambient effects, such as street and
city sounds, noises on the factory floor, life at the beach, or the creaks and groans and strains of ropes aboard a boat. The musical score also mixes up nicely into the overhead speakers to expand the soundstage, as do sounds from an intense thunderstorm near the film’s conclusion.
Several of the actors speak with pretty thick accents, making some of the dialogue tricky to understand at times, though these moments are usually brief and can certainly be rectified by turning subtitles on.
While the film meanders along a bit slowly, it is a fine and interesting journey to take. The movie inspired me to download the novel to my iPhone, and if a film can move you to read a book, that is a version of success on its own, I’d say. So, while I can’t compare how closely writer and director Armando Iannucci’s vision hews to the original, it certainly feels both true to the book’s spirit, story, and quirky characters while being fresh, inventive, modern, and unique in its approach.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.