I’d planned to see this in the theater, pre-pandemic, but had to wait until it was finally available for rent online. Because, while my dislike of Charles Dickens‘ work is well-established, I just love the cast of The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020). Starring Dev Patel, who I’ve enjoyed since Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Newsroom (2012-2014), this classic tale is filled with the frock flick veterans like Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, and Tilda Swinton, plus newer frock faces like Rosalind Eleazar from Harlots (2017-2018) and Howards End (2017).
The novel’s plot is hugely cut and condensed, as is necessary for a movie that runs under 2 hours. This makes for a nice, tidy story though, and lets the often clever dialog shine. The scenes with David and Mr. Micawber (Capaldi) and then David, his Aunt Betsey (Swinton), and Mr. Dick (Laurie) are absolutely the best parts of the film, and that’s about half the movie. The romance(s) that typically take up a great part of these novels are reduced to a subplot in this film, and it’s all the better because of that. I also appreciated the metaphor of David as author writing the story of his life that frames the movie — it gave a lightly bookish feel that’s my jam.
The date isn’t stated in the movie, so we have to deduce it from clues and costumes. David’s father’s tombstone is briefly shown, with a 1841 date for his death, and the boy is born shortly after his father’s death. When David’s an adult, the Palace of Westminster in London is shown under construction, which was started in 1840 and continued for 30 years. It’s not clear how old David is supposed to be — I’d guess he’s at least 20 since he’s got a “proper” job and is ready to get married. So maybe thee main part of the film takes place in the 1860s? But the clothes change from the 1830s to the 1840s ¯_(ツ)_/¯
The look of the film is very bright and fun, unlike some of the drab, dark Dickens adaptions out there that dwell on the misery of child labor and endless cycles of poverty. Sure, Copperfield goes from riches to rags and back again several times in the course of the film, but at a fast clip and even the slummy bits have colorful art direction. Thank goodness, because the colors and pattern mixing help avoid much of the 1840s = death of fashion truism that we know so well around here.
The costume designer was Suzie Harman, with Robert Worley co-credited. Harman was the designer for four episodes of Vanity Fair (2018) and Worley was her assistant, so I wonder if the situation was similar here. In an interview on Medium, Suzie Harman explained that her designs were part of a larger scheme:
“We worked with the production designer and set dresser to build an individual palette for each character and those around them, but overall would work together as whole visual narrative. Armando [director Armando Iannucci] would always like the stronger of the colour choices we gave him so we never felt we had gone too bold.”
Young Davey wears both color and pattern, which is based in historical examples.
Suzie Harman explained in Medium:
“We researched daguerreotypes of the 1840s and specifically loved the American ones, as the way they would dress in the photographs would be a lot more eccentric and bolder than the British ones which suited our characters perfectly. With this we were able to give the clothes a richer look and a heightened sense of reality which matched the feel of the film and the visuals.”
Here’s a selection from her moodboard of period images, where you can see the inspiration:
In London, David stays with Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, who are colorful in their own right. As Harman said: “The Micawbers were in fuchsia pinks and emerald greens with lots of clashing patterns to show a witty, chaotic but fun family.”
From the mixed-up, wild world of his London childhood, David goes to his Aunt Betsey’s pastoral home that’s warm and inviting but has it’s own brand of wacky. Which has been foreshadowed in the very first scene, when we saw Betsey in a rich teal 1830s gown:
Then, when adult David comes to live with Betsey, she’s wearing bright yellowy-orange. As Harman said:
“We wanted a bolder colour for Betsey that showed her strength of character but that was also incredibly warm — she is Mr. Dick’s carer after all but has always been portrayed as a hard spinster in the past. The orange colour reminded me of ginger biscuits!”
This is also where David meets Agnes Wickfield. She wears a lot of black / grey / white, with just a little color added. I did wish her hair was up the whole time because it looked great when it was. I can’t think of any particular character / plot reason why it was sometimes down.
Aunt Betsey sends David to school where he meets Lord Steerforth:
And the super-snooty Mrs. Steerforth:
And, of course, David falls in love with Dora Spenlow:
David himself gets a decent wardrobe at times, although as Suzie Harman said:
“A lot of the characters, as you say, go from rags to riches and vice versa, but we decided not to change their looks but to keep the character the same so you feel for them when their change of circumstance happens.”
Will you check out this latest Dickens adaption?