THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD: A Review
This retelling of David Copperfield is a classic Dickensian tale with a flair that makes its telling feel fresh and whimsical begins with a famous quote that we all half know: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” And so begins our winding journey alongside David, Davey, Trotwood, Davison, and Daisy (as it were). The beauty of the images on screen paint a picture that at times feels disjointed, but moves effortlessly from incredible moment to incredible moment on the journey that takes David Copperfield through his life from birth to rebirth.
I was so excited to get a chance to check this film out in a live screening at the 2020 Florida Film Festival at the Enzian Theater in Orlando Florida. Despite the current pandemic, the Enzian has gone above and beyond to provide screenings with generous social distancing and safety practices that even though the theater is more empty than this movie deserved, it was hard not to feel the connection that a shared movie experience provides.
What I loved
Dev Patel carries the role of David Copperfield gracefully and naturally. He meets many characters along the way that vividly come to life on screen in ways that make you feel as though you are reading the descriptions as they unfolded on the page. They are almost caricatures in a very whimsical and delightful way. The rollercoaster that takes David from being the only son of a widow to the discarded baggage of a new marriage also makes him the guest in an overwhelmingly loving (yet constantly indebted) family. The ride continues as he becomes a young man on the run and on his fresh start as a gentleman with a past and then finally landing as a man in love with a girl who is out of place in his story.
What I didn’t love
Though we are introduced to a wonderful array of supporting characters who help David on his long and winding journey, we do not get to spend enough time getting to know them because of the fast pace of the film. We feel his connection to them based on all of the great performances, however, it is tough to stay connected to them on the other side of the lens as the pace through situations races ahead. The third act of the film is where it is felt the most. As all of the characters come together for a very satisfying ending, it would have been nice to have more time with the characters as they enjoy the spoils of ride they took together.
A quick rundown of things parents should know before watching with their children:
- There are not many spiritual elements, the Bible is referenced very briefly as well as church but nothing specific or overt.
- There is no sexual content at all. All of the romantic moments are poetic and not physical. There is an occasional kiss.
- As far as violence it is kept to a couple of fistfights and not much more. You do see blood but it is a result of those fights. There is an intense scene near the beginning where it is implied that David is beaten as a young child by an adult. It is a disturbing scene if you are sensitive to this type of violence.
- No cursing in the film. The one character is name “Mr. Dick“ and they refer to him as “Dick” quite often.
- There potty humor in the film or any sort of uncomfortable references for humor.
- There are no drugs in the film but alcohol is consumed and a storyline the film with one character. He is obviously an alcoholic and is swayed by alcohol quite often. There is also a scene where David gets very drunk with his friends and has “drunk hair“.
Does it pass media bias tests?
Something I look for in every film is to see is whether or not it passes a set of media bias tests. Here is a list of the tests and what the criteria is for each to pass or fail.
Fail. Unfortunately despite the numerous amazing females performing in the film and how many scenes they had together, not one of those scenes was them discussing anything other than a male character.
Racial Betchel Test
Pass. This one is interesting because it does pass. David and Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) are both people of color and have several conversations about white characters. Race is a non-issue in this film. The characters are in no way limited by the color of their skin. The casting was extremely diverse and characters did not always resemble other members of their family.
Fail. Though several females have narrative arcs in the film, not one of them has one that is not about supporting the storyline of a man.
Pass. This certainly could have been a story where a female could take the place of David.
The Deggens Rule
Pass. This film felt like a film that should be used as an example in the future of how to successfully use this rule when telling a story.
The DuVernay Test
Pass. All of the characters were wonderfully fleshed out (even if we didn’t get to see enough of them) and only true background characters felt like set dressing.
Pass (barely). This one was tough because most of the women were successful but it was in the roles of nanny, daughter, widow, or wife. The notable exception being the character of Emily (Aimée Kelly) who is very good at her job as a fish gutter.
Fail. No character was identifiable as LGBTQIA+ in the film. They may have been there, but they were not openly represented.
In the end, this is a redemption story about a very interesting character and his extraordinarily interesting life. David and his engaging journey have every element needed to go from whimsical to scary to revenge filled and eventually a satisfying conclusion. I would definitely recommend it. There are brilliant performances all around and the film is a welcome escape from the current lack of whimsy in the world.
About the film:
From birth to infancy, from adolescence to adulthood, good-hearted David Copperfield is surrounded by kindness, wickedness, poverty, and wealth as he meets an array of remarkable characters in Victorian England. David sets out to be a writer in his quest for family, friendship, romance, and status; however, the story of his life is the most seductive tale of all. Charles Dickens’s beloved ode to grit and perseverance is re-imagined through the comedic lens of this film’s award-winning filmmakers, giving the tale new life for a cosmopolitan age, with ceaseless visual surprises and a wonderful cast, including Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, and Gwendoline Christie. Emmy winners and Oscar nominees Armando Ianucci (In the Loop, The Death of Stalin, Veep) and Simon Blackwell (In the Loop, HBO’s Succession) lend their wry yet heart-filled storytelling style to revisit Dickens’s iconic hero on his quirky journey from impoverished orphan to burgeoning author. Nominated for 11 British Independent Film Awards, this gloriously entertaining work puts a fresh, funny, and utterly charming spin on a truly timeless classic.
UK/USA, 2019, 119m Rated PG