The Personal History of David Copperfield

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has announced a change in its rules. In order to be considered in the future for an Oscar, a movie must meet certain criteria having to do with diversity.

To qualify as Best Picture, the film must meet any two of the four new rules. Among these guidelines, lead actors must display ethnic diversity … or 30% of secondary actors must be comprised of underrepresented groups … or the main storyline must center on underrepresented groups.

Somebody must have slipped a copy of these new Academy Award rules to the producers of a new film titled “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”

Based on the 1850 Charles Dickens novel, this is the story of a young man’s journey from idyllic childhood to oppression under a cruel stepfather to living with a wealthy aunt to becoming “a gentleman and author” (an oxymoron perhaps?).

The proper title of the original Dickens book is “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).”

The novel is classified as a Bildungsroman, a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood. In other words, a coming-of-age novel.

This 8th novel by Charles Dickens is considered semi-autobiographical, reflecting elements of the author’s own childhood.

As David Copperfield says at the beginning: “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story or whether that station will be held by anybody else these moments must show.”

“David Copperfield” has been filmed some 14 times, ranging from silent films to TV series to the 1933 George Cukor classic starring Freddy Bartholomew, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Barrymore, and W.C. Fields. But there hasn’t been a new theatrically released version in 50 years.

Until now.

Currently playing in select movie houses is “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” a brand-new film from Armando Iannucci, that funny Scottish satirist and filmmaker who gave us “The Death of Stalin.”

Iannucci began reading Dickens when he was a lad of 13 and was struck by its “combination of humanity and satire and funniness.” A few years ago, he made a TV documentary called “Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens,” a critical appreciation of the novelist.

As if anticipating the new Academy Award criteria, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” features what is called “colorblind casting.” Think: The multiracial casting in Broadway’s “Hamilton.”

Here the title character is played by Dav Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), a British actor of Indian ethnicity. Benedict Wong (“Dr. Strange”) has a Chinese family tree. Rosalind Eleazar (TV’s “Howards End) and Nikki Amuka-Bird (“The Laundromat”) are black. All are roles that would traditionally go to lily-white British thespians.

Others in the film include: Peter Capaldi (TV’s “Doctor Who”) as a hilariously unhinged street hustler. Tilda Swinton (an Oscar for “Michael Clayton”) as David’s kooky aunt. Hugh Laurie (TV’s “House”) as a perfect nut job. Darren Boyd (“Bridget Jones’s Baby”) as David’s cruel stepfather. Morfydd Clark (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) as David’s cartoonish mom. And Ben Whishaw (Q in the “James Bond” films) as that ratty villain Uriah Heep.

Dav Patel puts it, “In past iterations, I haven’t seen myself represented on that screen. I definitely didn’t think it would appeal to me or speak to me, but Dickens is a truly universal story.”

The Guardian describes the film as “handsomely shot and something of a narrative whirlwind, as the young David survives numerous setbacks and twists of fate to come of age as an ambitious young writer.”

Rating “The Personal History of David Copperfield” a solid 93, Rotten Tomato concludes that the film “puts a fresh, funny, and utterly charming spin on Dickins’ classic, proving some stories are truly timeless.”

“The whole book is about status anxiety,” Iannucci adds.

No spoiler alert needed here (you should have read the book in your English Lit class). As David Copperfield says to his younger self at the end of the film: “Don’t worry. You’ll make it through. And you’ll have quite the ride on the way.”

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