The Oscars are days away, a blessed season where nominated films, their cargo-holds heavy with awards and hype, wash up on foreign shores, allowing us to forage for favourites. This column is not about those nominees. Each year, some movies prove too brilliant for a jury, and a fantastical adaptation of a heavy novel is not everyone’s bag. The Personal History Of David Copperfield arrived quietly on Disney+ Hotstar Premium last weekend—like a message in a bottle flung out to readers unknown—and it is the best English language film of the last year.
Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield in 1849, featuring a hard-done protagonist who chose not to dwell on the misfortunes of his life, but rather on the turns of phrase he collected on the way. He emerges, naturally, as a writer. In Copperfield’s life (and initials) readers found echoes of Dickens’ own, and the author called it “a very complicated weaving of truth and invention”. Copperfield is an autobiographical novel, but Dickens casts a long shadow, his observations about language and dialect going on to influence and shape language and dialect themselves. In describing England, he moulds it.
This invigorating adaptation is directed by Armando Iannucci, a film-maker obsessed with language, and this whimsical ode to peculiar descriptions and surprising metaphors is a toast to imagination itself. Imagination as escape, imagination as coping mechanism. A character admits to being homeless, to which another replies that living outside is much better because every meal is a picnic. The Personal History Of David Copperfield is about perspective. Half-full or half-empty are the only options only when you consider a glass a glass.
This is a gorgeous film, full of folks living in upturned boats, tea served inside giant birdcages and cakes so dense they could do your head in. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson chooses lenses slyly to evoke a dreamy pop-up-book quality, and the production design by Cristina Casali and Charlotte Dirickx is simultaneously period-authentic yet somehow modern. It is a fearlessly theatrical film—with an audaciously diverse cast—that feels like a musical. A musical without song? Ah, be like little David and listen closely to the words.
When young Copperfield faces cruelty, he focuses on how a woman appears to be made “of Dutch cheese”, or how iron pistons in a bottling plant resemble “melancholy mad elephants”. Fascinated by words, he scribbles what he hears—and what he invents—building a library of scraps as he scrapes together a life. It isn’t merely the hero coming of age. The famed structures of London in the background are in scaffolding, incomplete but promising great things.
Copperfield, first played adorably by Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsani, grows into an awkward, clumsy, wonderful youth played by Dev Patel, who drinks in people around him so noticeably you may as well hear him gulp. A superbly supple performer, Patel bends to the words he hears and looks eternally gobsmacked by language as he wraps his mouth around the dialects and phrases he mimics.
His influences are miraculous. The great Tilda Swinton sets the tone as Mrs Trotwood, an aunt annoyed that David isn’t a girl. Daisy May Cooper is delightful as Peggotty, enchanting the boy by declaring a crocodile a potato. Peter Capaldi—an old Iannucci star who took swear-words to lyric heights in The Thick Of It—twinkles as Mr Micawber, an impecunious optimist perpetually in debt, teaching David to find the silver lining even in tinfoil. Ben Whishaw is unforgettably slimy as the obsequious Uriah Heep, and Morfydd Clark performs a clever double-act as David’s long-suffering mother and, later, the woman he loves.
David finds his greatest inadvertent teacher in Mr Dick, his aunt’s cousin (twice removed from reality), a man who believes that when King Charles I was beheaded, all his thoughts and worries entered Mr Dick’s own head. He is played stunningly by Hugh Laurie, who strikes just the right flighty, imperial balance between monarch and butterfly. He picks an orange from a handcart with the exuberance of a man who has just discovered electricity. He also assures David that he is indeed a writer.
In the Calvin And Hobbes comics, a young boy is friends with a stuffed tiger. Theirs is a competitive, philosophical, sarcastic relationship. Creator Bill Watterson denied either that Hobbes comes to life magically or that he is a figment of Calvin’s imagination, saying that “Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it.”
Therefore, when we tread between the lines, learning that Mr Micawber—foxing debtors and (inaccurately) claiming his chicken to be that of an honest man—is based on Dickens’ own father, we see both the author’s hardship and his ability to rise above it. Micawber’s last line in the film shows his disbelief at what a writer can earn.
When David sits at his writing desk to describe a particularly imperious snob (Mrs Steerforth, icily played by Nikki Amuka-Bird), we sit enthralled by his side. So far he has mostly collected phrases, but now he conjures up greatness all his own. It’s a knockout blow, the kind that would be repeated many a time in slow-motion in the climax of a boxing film. “She was now all edge,” he writes. Bam.
Written by Iannucci and long-time collaborator Simon Blackwell, The Personal History Of David Copperfield is a passionate film about writers and inspiration that will itself inspire new wordsmiths. In describing storytellers, it will create them. Exaggeration is an art. Imagination is a choice. A writer must look beyond life sentences, and towards the sentences of life.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.