The Personal History of David Copperfield ★★★★½

Reviewed on Cinema Eclectica.

Feel a bit sheepish having wasted my big argument about the pleasure of auteurist literary adaptations on Little Women now - that film is very Greta Gerwig, but this is unbelievably Armando Iannucci, both in its ideas and its general quality. As ever in Iannucci's projects, everyone in the cast is giving it all they've got, from the Oscar winners to the British TV up-and-comers. It's almost pointless singling out highlights: if you like someone - anyone - in this cast, they will give one of their best performances.

When you consider this as an Iannucci film rather than a Dickens adaptation, it's easier to understand why it makes such light work of my mixed feelings about the source author. George Orwell wrote a famous even-handed but critical essay where he characterised Dickens's work as liberal, not Left - the problems of society are honestly observed, but the solution generally involves people just being a bit nicer to each other. You don't have to be a raving Marxist (but it helps!) to realise that the excesses of 19th century British capitalism were tamed not by a sudden fit of conscience on behalf of the bosses, but by mass action and organisation that Dickens, a man who lived through the Chartist movement, nevertheless rarely engages with.

The obvious counterargument to this is that Dickens is telling a story, not drafting up a set of policy proposals. But rehousing David Copperfield in a body of work increasingly defined by institutional structures muddling through with horrific consequences puts it in a different light. Rather than being disappointed that the likes of Mr. Micawber and Betsy Trotwood can't be lifted out of poverty as conclusively as David is, we see it as an unexpected chink of light in a normally pessimistic director's oeuvre. Just this once, racing through life grabbing at anything you can find to keep you afloat works - and the style is rambunctious and carnivalesque enough to make both the fatalism and the optimism land.

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