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Dr Jeremy Swinson watches The Personal History of David Copperfield, directed by Armando Iannucci.

This adaptation of a much-loved Dickens classic has deservedly drawn praise from both critics and public. It is directed with wit and verve by Armando Iannucci, who also wrote the screenplay. The rich variety of characters are bought to life by a diverse group of actors; Dev Patel as David himself, Peter Capaldi as accordion-playing Mr Micawber, Tilda Swinton as Mrs Trotwood, David’s benefactor, and Rosalind Eleazar as Mr Wickford’s daughter and David’s true love. Every good story has a villain and Dickens provides one of literature’s best in Uriah Heep, played with real venom by Ben Whishaw. Acutely aware of his low social status he hovers in the background plotting his devious ascent to power and the humiliation of this elders and betters.

But apart from this glorious celebration of Dickens, his stories and his characterisation, there is so much in this story for psychologists.

It is widely acknowledged that a great deal of David Copperfield is autobiographical. The novel is written in the first person and was one of the first times in modern literature that a voice is given to the child. The parallels between Dicken’s life and that of David are most evident when David is sent away – not to school as he thought, but to work in a ‘Blacking’ Factory, an experience Dickens himself endured when he had to take responsibility for his family after his father was sent to the debtor’s prison. The impact of the separation of the young David from his mother early in the film and the impact it has on his later well-being is finely observed. The film and the novel vividly portray the anxiety of the separation from his mother, and the impact this interruption of his attachment to his mother has on his personality. 

The second characterisation in the film of interest is that of Mr Dick, superbly played by Hugh Laurie. Mr Dick is a distant relative of Mrs Trotwood with whom he shares a house. When David meets Mr Dick he meets a man obsessed with the thoughts of King Charles I prior to his execution. Mr Dick writes these thoughts in scribbled notes which he attaches to a kite. The scene in which he and David fly the kite as his thoughts are released to the wind is one of pure joy. Mr Dick is described by Dickens as ‘feebleminded’. Today we would probably recognise a man obsessed by irrational thoughts and imaginary voices as schizophrenic. Mr Dick is probably the first time in English literature that a description of any mental disorder appears in a writing. In both Dickens’ original work and this film Mr Dick is portrayed with great sensitivity. You get a sense that both men find great solace in their friendship. 

It is well-known that Sigmund Freud was a great student of the works of Shakespeare – he had a bust of the playwright on his desk and derived a number of his archetypal characters from his work.  What is less well known is that he was also a huge enthusiast for the work of Dickens, and in fact gave a copy of David Copperfield to his fiancée Martha Bernays during their rather protracted engagement. There is little doubt that to some degree he was influenced by the great novelist, who – especially in his three great early works, Oliver Twist, Nichols Nickleby and David Copperfield – explores the impact that infant experience has on the development of personality.

This film does full justice to Dickens and his numerous characters. It is glorious evocation of the early Victorian age, but above all it is entertaining and manages to almost reinvent the novel while being true to its original. 

- Reviewed by Dr Jeremy Swinson, an Educational Psychologist from Liverpool.                 

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