Charles Dickens and I go way back. I was first introduced to him by my grandfather through A Christmas Carol at a very young age. My love of that story led to my interest in Dickens’ other books and his own life. This has, I admit, turned into quite a Dickens obsession on my part, with a whole bookshelf dedicated to his life and works.
I must also admit not being overly familiar with this specific material. However, it cements everything I know about Dickens. He was a natural performer and a storyteller with a fun-loving spirit. David Copperfield is his most autobiographical novel and likely, his most autobiographical character as well. Dev Patel’s portrayal here embodies all of those things beautifully, and is sincerely relatable and charming in the title role. Patel is a natural leading man, and the rest of the cast is just as good. I won’t soon forget Tilda Swinton as the tough Betsey Trotwood or Hugh Laurie as the lovable Mr. Dick. Everyone else shines as well from Peter Capaldi to Gwendoline Christie. I felt like I was watching a play, put on by a first rate theatrical troupe. This was furthered by an interesting double casting, which seldom happens on film yet happens in theatre all of the time. In addition, this is perhaps the first time I have seen a classic adaptation on film go for completely race-blind casting. Simply put, it was a delight to see and a breath of fresh air, through and through. I only hope this becomes a regular occurrence in the near future.
Apart from the casting, there were other theatrical tendencies as well. The way in which scenes were staged or the movement from one scene to the next being examples. Utilizing techniques such as projections and non-literal storytelling heightened the film and gave it this distinct theatrical quality.
First and foremost, the film is a comedy. Though Dickens’ was wickedly funny, the tragedy of his characters and storytelling is often thought of first. The focus of this film was to bring out the comedic aspects of the material and it had me laughing from beginning to end. In fact, the film rarely slows down or takes a breath. This could be a negative thing, yet here it works in its favor. By capturing our attention right from the start, it never lets it go or bores us over the course of its two hour runtime. From its glorious use of colors to its amazing sets, everything about the film works without overstaying its welcome.
I remember when this film was first announced back in 2018 and before Disney’s acquisition of Fox. Here we are, two years later, it is finally available in the United States after becoming available in the United Kingdom earlier this year. I am happy to say, it was entirely worth the wait. I only wish I could have seen it on a big screen.
At the end of the day, the film is distinctly Dickens and yet rooted in the 21st century. The only way to keep old stories relevant is to reinvent and adapt them for modern times. Director Armando Iannucci clearly knows this, and knows how to do it right.
Many thanks to Disney who provided me with a copy for this film in exchange for this honest review.
Be sure to check out our interview with Christopher Willis who composed the score of this film.