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Charles Dickens

Nearing three decades, the village of Port Jefferson turned once again into a Dickensian storyland for the annual Charles Dickens Festival.

Kickstarted by a parade down East Main Street on Saturday, Dec. 2, dozens of people dressed to the nines in their best Victorian-era suits and gowns joined characters from Dickens’ books like “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol” to march to

the Village Center. 

“This really is the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season,” Mayor Lauren Sheprow  said. “Walking through the Village Center is literally like a movie set, and what the arts council has done in such a short period of time, I’m overwhelmed and amazed by it.”

Spearheaded by the Village of Port Jefferson and the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, there were plenty of things to do and see.

Different dance troupes performed throughout the day in different locations, while a blacksmith was melting iron in front of the Frigate store. For the first time ever, the arts council created Santa Claus Central, located inside the Methodist Church.

Sheprow said she was looking most forward to watching her nephew perform at the Presbyterian Church with his school’s orchestra, “and see how residents and visitors really appreciate this event.”

And it wouldn’t have been a Dickens Festival without sporadic performances from “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol” scheduled throughout the day on Main Street.

Other fun events that followed into Sunday, Dec. 3, despite the wet weather, included ice skating, checking out the festival of trees inside the Village Center, a magic show, horse and carriage rides and performances from all levels of the Port Jefferson school district choirs and orchestras.

By Tara Mae 

In celebration of the 27th Annual Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson Village on Dec 2 and 3, the Long Island Museum (LIM) has collaborated with the Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council (GPJAC) to present  Come In! — Come In! And, Know Me Better, Man! at the LIM’s Carriage Museum on Saturday, Nov. 25 and Saturday, Dec. 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. Over a dozen costumed Dickensian characters will roam among antique carriages as they magically transform the galleries into a London of a bygone century. The event is included with museum admission.

“Some of the beloved longtime Dickens Festival characters are venturing further afield from Port Jefferson Village and heading toward the Long Island Museum to spread some joy in the holiday season, and to share with LIM visitors some of the aspects of their life during the middle of the 19th century,” said GPJAC Program Director Amy Tuttle. 

Portraying a number of the author’s archetypes such as those who populate A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, they carry the patrons back in time by immersing themselves in their roles. Being surrounded by transportation of yesteryear only enhances the effect. 

“The actors will be wandering around and doing performances as Dickensian characters-situational performances,” explained LIM’s Public Programs Coordinator Emma Backfish. “We have never had something like this, where we have these performers near the actual carriages. It will be interesting to see the actors play off of the different carriages, many of which are tied into that era. And, it will be an unique experience for them.”

“Because the actors are so immersed in their characters, they can not only bring scenes in the Dickens canon to life, they also interact spontaneously with the public. Several of the actors are also very much involved with historical re-enactments, and have appeared in period films,” added Tuttle.

Like the museum itself, the actors are committed to exploring the artistry of enlivening history. Through historical interpretation, a performance art rooted in realism, the actors invite the audience to participate in their play and appreciate history from a more interpersonal perspective. 

“I am excited to see people acting amongst our vehicles. They are bringing the era to life, putting vehicles in motion in people’s minds. Having people there, speaking and acting as they are part of that time, brings them to life in a lot of ways,” Backfish said.

Wardrobes are provided by either the actors or through the estate of Nan Guzzetta, the late proprietress of Antique Costumes and Props by Nan in Port Jefferson. 

These events are the latest act in an ongoing partnership between the GPJAC and LIM. Previously the organizations jointly focused on live musical performances, specifically the Sunday Street Concert Series which is held at the museum’s Gillespie Room. 

“It’s exciting being part of a collaboration which is so unique, enlightening and fun for everyone,” said Tuttle.

The Long Island Museum is located at 1200 Route 25A in Stony Brook. For more information, visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

By Stephanie Giunta

Almost 180 years ago, Charles Dickens gave us the immortal gift of A Christmas Carol, which has become a pillar of holiday culture and a reminder to hold the spirit of the season near and dear. 

Port Jefferson’s Main Street, already adorned with wreaths on the lamp posts in preparation for its 27th annual Charles Dickens Festival, was only trumped by Theatre Three’s warmth and inviting decor during last Saturday’s opening night performance of the holiday classic. Carolers, singing familiar tunes before the show, further ignited the magic of Christmas in the air. 

Revisited, adapted, and never told quite the same way twice, Theatre Three’s version transports the audience back to 19th century England for an introspective, festive excursion that touches hearts and minds in a profound way. Jeffrey Sanzel, the show’s executive artistic director who doubles as the stingy curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, reinvents the show each season, bringing a unique twist and newfound beauty to the timeless tale. 

Sanzel’s versatility is remarkable; his expressive nature and ability to portray a character with such complex, emotional layers is exceptional. Along with the power of his reprimands, I could feel Scrooge’s sardonic “Good Afternoon!” down to my bones. I felt like I was being asked to leave the office along with his chipper and persistent nephew, Fred Halliwell (Sean Amato) and warm and loving clerk, Bob Cratchit (Ray Gobes Jr.) on Christmas Eve. Both Fred, joyful and optimistic, and Bob, loyal and dedicated, are talented bookends who symbolize the redemption, compassion, and transformative power of the Christmas spirit over even the harshest of humans. 

The Fezziwig duo, played by the talented Stephen T. Wangner and Ginger Dalton, are the essence of fanciful charm. Their playful interaction and bubbly nature personify the merriment of the season. I could smell their mince pies, plum porridge, and zest for life from a mile away. In tandem, daughter, Belle Fezziwig (Julia Albino), wonderfully captures Scrooge’s heart, but pivots beautifully to letting him go to his newfound love: money.

A flawless performance from the three spirits is not to forget. Cassidy Rose O’Brien is angelic as the Ghost of Christmas Past, walking Scrooge through a painful review of his mistakes and heartbreaks, including the loss of his relationship with Belle, and the deaths of his older sister, Fan (Alexa Eichinger, Brooke Morrison) and partner, Jacob Marley (Steven Uihlein). 

I was particularly enthralled with the scene in which townspeople are asking Scrooge to “Buy” or “Sell.” There are so many overlapping dialogues intersecting at once, providing the audience with a line of sight into Scrooge’s psyche, and how he may be processing the key occurrences of his past simultaneously. It was brilliant.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Wangner) has a belly laugh that echoes throughout the theater, yet showcases the firm, tough love Scrooge needs to realize the gravity of matters at hand.

Lastly, I mouthed “wow” when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Amato) appeared on stage. What a vision! The scenes that follow produce a scared-straight version of Scrooge that even he didn’t know existed. 

I would be remiss in mentioning the short scene featuring Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper (Dalton), in which she was inebriated on his gravesite. Her quick wit and boisterous mirth adds an unexpected and appreciated twang of comedy to the performance.

Randall Parsons and Jason Allyn truly bring 19th century England to Port Jefferson through beautiful production design and authentic costuming. The audience is transported through time with spine-tingling special effects by Robert W. Henderson Jr., and Brad Frey injects jollity into the atmosphere with signature Victorian carols and hymnal tunes. 

When I first saw A Christmas Carol about 20 years ago, I remember being impressed with Scrooge and the cast because they made the story feel so real. Through an adult lens, it was even more apparent. Somehow, Sanzel and the cast are able to draw out a variety of emotions, connecting you not only to Christmas, but the treasures of giving of yourself to those less fortunate, being kind to others, and finding happiness. It’s a show that plays on the heartstrings in so many different capacities, reminding children and adults alike of what is most important during the holidays.

Theatre Three makes Christmas spirit feel so tangible that you can wrap it up in a box with a big, red bow. Bravo to Sanzel and the cast for bringing something so wonderful to life! Be sure to stick around post-performance for a photo memento with Scrooge. The $5 charge contributes to the theater’s scholarship fund.

CAST & CREW: Julia Albino, Jason Allyn, Sean Amato, Karin Bagan, Steven Barile Jr., Kyle M. Breitenbach, Mairead Camas, Shannon Cooper, Ginger Dalton, Alexa Eichinger, Angelina Eybs, Sari Feldman, Griffin Fleming, Brad Frey, Julie Friedman, Christina Gobes, Ray Gobes Jr., Skye Greenberg, Tim Haggerty, Kathleen Arabelle Han, Robert W. Henderson Jr., Patrick Hutchinson, Zach Kanakaris, Linda May, Brooke Morrison, Cassidy Rose O’Brien, Randall Parsons, William Roslak, Jeffrey Sanzel, Finn Thomas, Isabela Thomsen, Melissa Troxler, Steven Uihlein, Addyson Urso, Stephen T. Wangner, Cassidy Worrell, Kaylin Zeidler and Stanley Zinger

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 30. All tickets are $25 in November and range from $25 to $40 in December. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

See a trailer of the show here.

Gerald Dickens

To celebrate the start of the Christmas season, Gerald Dickens, the great-great Grandson of author Charles Dickens, will perform a live one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens’ unforgettable holiday tale, “A Christmas Carol.” The show will be performed live at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre on Saturday, December 2nd at 7 p.m. Using his own adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale, Gerald plays over 30 characters using vocal and physical talents to bring each scene vividly to life.

Gerald Dickens’ breathtaking one-man performance of his great-great grandfather’s epic Christmas tale is a theatrical tour de force. Gerald Dickens delivers an extraordinary performance in his one-man play of the classic Christmas story, depicting all of the individual characters with clarity and a mesmerizing energy. He is able to communicate the fear and angst of Scrooge, while offering us a poignant glimpse into the Cratchit family’s life. And, of course, Gerald infuses bits of laughter throughout the play.

Gerald Dickens is an actor, director and producer and the great-great grandson of the author Charles Dickens. In 1993 he created his first one-man show, a theatrical performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ inspired by Charles Dickens’ own energetic readings of the 1860s.

A Christmas Carol: Dickens’s most famous ghost story was an instant success upon its release in 1843. The story follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly man who hates Christmas. Scrooge started a business with Jacob Marley, who was very similar to Scrooge prior to his death, but after Marley’s passing, Scrooge has run the business on his own. One night Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge about the fate that awaits him if he does not become a better person. Marley tells Scrooge that in the coming nights he will be visited by three more ghosts. Initially Scrooge fails to take the warning seriously but as the ghostly visits become more terrifying, Scrooge begins to realize that he must change his ways, eventually learning the importance of charity and friendship.

Copies of Gerald Dickens’ critically acclaimed new book, Dickens and Staplehurst: A Biography of a Rail Crash, will also be available at this event.

Additional Event Information:

Date:

Saturday, December 2nd at 7:00 PM

Location:

Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave, Huntington, NY 11743

Fees:

Performance and Book:
$45 Public | $40 Cinema Arts Centre Members

Performance Only:
$30 Public | $25 Cinema Arts Centre Members

Tickets:

https://bit.ly/GerlandDickensAChristmasCarol

You can purchase tickets or find more information about these and other events on the Cinema Arts Centre website:www.cinemaartscentre.org

During the 26th annual Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson village, TBR News Media had a chance to catch up with some of those in attendance. During a series of one-on-one encounters throughout the event, we asked the attendees what this local tradition meant to them.

— Photos by Raymond Janis

 

 

 

Nancy Klimpel, Ronkonkoma

“The Port Jeff [Dickens] Festival, to me, means the beginning of the holiday season. It helps to bring people together, allows them to mix and mingle with different kinds of things and cultural opportunities, to see anything from a radio show to a small production, to a choir or some kind of orchestral choice. It really brings the joy of the season to others.”

 

 

 

 

 

George Overin, Bohemia

“When you walk down the street, the people you see are very heavy during the holiday season. It may seem really heavy for some people, but when they look up and see these two idiots in smoke and soot and everything else, going ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to ya,’ they smile. You know what? For that second, the world is lifted off their shoulders. For us, that’s what this is all about: Giving a little bit of joy in the darkest time of the year for some people. There are some joys you can’t buy anywhere, and that’s what it means to me.”

 

 

 

Joseph McGowan, Middle Island

“Oh my goodness, where do I start? To bring joy to the local community, to put a smile on someone’s face, to make a little baby’s eyes light up, to see an elderly person — who probably lost a loved one at a recent time — to put a smile on their face, to bring joy and happiness to the whole community, and to bring the true spirit of Christmas into the hearts of everyone in the neighborhood and throughout the area.”

 

 

 

 

Bob Ogden, Setauket

“I’m going to micro in and break it down a little bit tighter, just to be selfish about the troop, the groups, and the street plays. Since September, I have liked to see these little guys’ and girls’ development. Walking in in September and saying, ‘Here’s a script. I want you to memorize it and act it by December,’ and to see their growth and how they gain confidence as they learn their lines, that’s what I like to see.”

 

 

 

 

“Jacob Marley,” Port Jefferson

“It’s an opportunity to introduce people to the wonderful storytelling of Charles Dickens. If you haven’t read ‘A Christmas Carol,’ you should or listen to the audiobook. It’s funny, it’s incisive and relevant to today. The message of Christmas being a time of giving — as opposed to a time of just getting things — I just love that feeling of the spirit of being generous.”

 

 

 

 

 

Russ Green, Sound Beach

“’A Christmas Carol,’ specifically, is a story of hope and redemption on many levels. The Dickens Fest as a whole, to me, means, more than anything, a time of coming together as a community, which is especially lacking in this day and age.”

 

 

 

Gerald Dickens

UPDATE on Dec. 5 — This event has been canceled with no immediate plans to reschedule.

Read post from Gerald Dickens here.

By Melissa Arnold

When it comes to Christmas shows, there is perhaps none more iconic or beloved than A Christmas Carol. Since its publication in 1843, Charles Dickens’ famous novella has inspired dozens of theatrical and film adaptations, many with cult followings.

Whether your favorite Scrooge is George C. Scott, Michael Caine or Scrooge McDuck, a one-of-a-kind performance in Huntington next week may just top them all.

On Dec. 5, the Cinema Arts Centre (CAC) in Huntington will welcome British actor and producer Gerald Charles Dickens for a live, one-man performance of “A Christmas Carol.” Gerald is the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, and his fascination with the author’s life and works led him to create something of his own.

Gerald will portray nearly 30 individual characters as the story unfolds with a touch of humor and deep emotional connection to the man behind the words.

The performance comes in the midst of the center’s Vic Skolnick Life of Our Cinema Campaign, an annual fundraising effort to support programming for the coming year, said Nate Close, CAC’s director of marketing and communications. He added that they like to host events during the fundraiser that are intriguing and fun for a broad audience to enjoy. “It’s always great to see theater performed live, especially when we typically broadcast theatrical performances on-screen here. The theater seats around 190 people, so it will be an intimate performance and we’re expecting a great turnout.”

CAC board member Jude Schanzer said that A Christmas Carol is the perfect holiday classic to set the season’s purpose of generosity, kindness, and goodwill.

“While it is true that Gerald is the great-great grandson  of Charles Dickens, it is his acting skills that make him extraordinary. His command of his voice and movements create unforgettable and completely distinguishable characters from Scrooge to Tiny Tim, all with minimal props,” said Schanzer. 

“How often are you afforded the added perk of having a brush with history? Gerald is passionate about his work as an actor and in portraying characters with whom he has a unique bond. He is also generous with his time and spirit and readily answers audience questions after every performance,” she said.

Copies of Gerald’s new book Dickens and Staplehurst: A Biography of a Rail Crash will also be available at the event. The book examines a deadly rail crash in 1865 and the subsequent investigation. Charles Dickens survived the crash and was profoundly affected by the events of that day. Gerald digs into Charles’ private life and professional motivations before and after the crash.

See A Christmas Carol at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5 at the Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave, Huntington. Tickets to the performance are $30 per person, $25 for CAC members. Tickets to the performance plus a copy of the book are $45, $40 for CAC members. For To order, visit www.cinemaartscentre.org or call 631-423-7610. 

Learn more about Gerald Charles Dickens at www.geralddickens.com.

By Heidi Sutton

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” And so begins one of the most popular, most-adapted and most relevant holiday tales ever written, Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. Published on Dec. 19, 1843, the initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. More than 178 years later, it lives on as a story of redemption and hope and serves as a reminder to keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year round. 

In the book’s foreword, Dickens writes:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Now the pages of the Dickensian story come to life once again as Theatre Three in Port Jefferson presents its 38th annual production of A Christmas Carol. The curtain went up this past Saturday to a full house.

While preparations are still underway to transform the seaport village back to the Victorian era for its 26th annual Charles Dickens Festival on Dec 3 and 4, Theatre Three is already dressed head to toe for the holidays and carolers entertain theatergoers before the show, setting the  tone for what is to come.

Adapted for the stage by Executive Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel, A Christmas Carol tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Sanzel), a successful business man who has chosen money over everything else and has become bitter, lonely and stingy over the years, especially around the holidays. “I have devoted my life to the cultivation of business,” he explains.

We first meet the miserly curmudgeon on Christmas Eve, exactly seven years after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley (Stephen T. Wangner). Caught in a particulary bad mood, we witness him chase carolers from his office, turn away the needy and a pair of charity workers. He snaps at his underappreciated and underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit (Douglas J. Quattrock) and his chipper nephew Fred Halliwell (Sean Amato) the sole child of Scrooge’s deceased sister, Fan, who has dropped by to invite him for dinner. “Keep Christmas in your own way and I will keep it in mine,” he warns his nephew before kicking him out.

That evening Scrooge is visited by Marley’s tormented ghost who offers him one last chance at redemption. Draped in the chains he has forged in life, Marley tells Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits — the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Danielle Pafundi) appears soon after, all aglow in a white dress, and takes Scrooge to Wellington House, the boarding school he attended as a young boy alone; we meet his adored sister Fan and his apprenticeship at Fezziwig’s (played by Scott Hofer), where the audience is introduced to Scrooge’s one and only love, Belle. This is also where he meets Marley for the first time and where his choices take him down a dark path.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Scott Hofer) takes Scrooge to meet Bob Cratchit’s family where he learns about Tiny Tim’s failing health and to a dinner party hosted by his nephew where guests play a fun game of Yes or No. 

In one of the most anticipated and frightful scenes, a towering Ghost of Christmas Future (operated by Sean Amato) shows Scrooge the shadows of what is yet to come, including  at trip to the cemetery to see his headstone, and how the people in his life are affected after his death, including a disturbing scene where Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (Ginger Dalton) attempts to profit from his demise. It is just what Scrooge needs to shake him to the core. In the end, he learns that “life is not about facts and figures. It’s about joy and family and Christmas.”

Directed by Sanzel, the entire production is flawless and the talented cast (playing multiple roles) is excellent. As Scrooge, Sanzel is at his finest in a role he has played almost 1500 times. This is most evident when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes his character to one of Fezziwig’s famous holiday parties. While otherwise slightly hunched over with a slow walk, Sanzel suddenly jumps into the role of a younger Scrooge and  takes part in a Wassail dance (choreographed by Sari Feldman) with boundless energy.

Although in its 38th year, the show is always evolving, remaining fresh and exciting while maintaining its timelessness and important message. The Victorian set, costumes and creative lighting tie it all together to create a magical evening at the theater.

Get your ticket to see this wonderful production “before you dot another ‘i'” and make it part of your holiday traditions. It will make your heart full.

Stay after the show for a photo keepsake with Scrooge. The $5 fee goes to support the theater’s scholarship fund.

The Cast: Sean Amato, Ava Andrejko, Ginger Dalton, Ellie Dunn, Alexa Eichinger, Samantha Fierro, Griffin Fleming, Julie Friedman, Skye Greenberg, Kathleen Han, Scott Hofer, Patrick Hutchinson, Linda May, Brooke Morrison, Danielle Pafundi, Douglas J. Quattrock, Michaela Reis, Dylan Paige Rumble, Vivian Leigh Rumble, Jeffrey Sanzel, Jennifer Salvia, Steven Uihlein,  Addyson Urso, Hannah Waller, Stephen T. Wangner and Cassidy Worrell.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol through Dec. 30. Tickets are $20 per person in November, and $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, and $20 children ages 5 and up in December. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

The 25th annual Charles Dickens Festival drew in hundreds with Port Jefferson village transforming into the Dickensian era last weekend.

After a halt in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the community was able to travel back in time (again) decked out in their most festive attire. 

“It’s just such a wonderful destination for the holidays,” said County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). “It’s unique, it’s special and it’s great thing for businesses.”

Characters like the dusty chimney sweeps, Father Christmas, Dickens Mayor, the Town Crier and of course, Scrooge, performed on the village streets and posed for photo ops with visitors and residents, alike. 

The festivities began on Dec. 4 at 11 a.m. with a parade down East Main Street, headed by village officials and former mayor Jeanne Garant and concluded Sunday night.

“We are so proud and grateful that we can bring back this great tradition to the village,” said Mayor Margot Garant. “Not only does it bring an economic boost to our merchants and kick off the holiday season, but it brings good will and merriment to all. I am proud to carry on this tradition and keep it alive in hearts for all near and far.”

— All photos by Julianne Mosher

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On Friday, Dec. 3, village officials gathered at two lanterns on Main Street to remember Nan Guzzetta and Bradley Charles Collins.

Across the street from her home and costume shop, a lantern was named for Guzzetta who passed away earlier this year. 

Guzzetta was a well-known and beloved costumer who dressed local actors and was instrumental with her involvement in the Dickens Festival. 

“I will always look up at that porch and wave to Nan every time I pass that building,” said Mayor Margot Garant.

The group then headed outside the Chase Bank on Main Street to honor Collins, who also recently passed away. 

After the dedications, residents stopped into the Village Center for hot chocolate, cookies and ice skating. Santa also made an appearance on his sleigh for photos.

— All photos by Julianne Mosher

Dev Patel stars as David Copperfield in latest adaptation. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
A joyous new vision of a Dickens classic

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield

After Shakespeare (and perhaps J.K. Rowling), Charles Dickens is the most famous writer in the English language. His major works include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, and A Christmas Carol, with hundreds of stage, screen, and television adaptations.

Charles Dickens began crafting his autobiography in the late 1840s. But he found the writing too painful and burned what he had written. He then fictionalized many of his personal experiences for what became David Copperfield. It is Dickens’ premiere work told in the first person (and note that David Copperfield’s initials are Charles Dickens’ backward, suggesting a reflection of the author himself).

From left, Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in a scene from the film.
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The Personal History of David Copperfield was published in monthly installments, serialized from 1849 to 1850, and then brought out in book form. Dickens’ longest work, Copperfield is rich in plot and contains close to one hundred characters. It is an incredible journey, full of adventure, but it is also about mastering one’s fate, growing from passive child to self-aware adult. Young David is acted upon; adult David is a figure who has taken control of his own life.

The cinematic history includes three silent and over a half dozen others. The most notable is the two-part BBC television version (1999) featuring an extraordinary cast, with Danielle Radcliffe as young David, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber, and Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey. 

The newest incarnation is a unique and slightly madcap adaptation. Directed by Armando Iannucci, from a screenplay by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, it condenses the epic novel into a brisk, laugh-out-loud, and always heartfelt two hours. The choices are often wild and surprising, but no moment, no matter how peculiar, departs from the vision’s integrity.

The film opens with David Copperfield (a mesmerizing Dev Patel, reinventing the role) reading his book to a packed theatre. But is it David or Charles Dickens? Ultimately, it is both. He states the first two lines and then literally steps into the story, being present at his own birth. 

Baby David’s arrival coincides with the appearance of his late father’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood (impeccably played by Tilda Swinton, swanning through the story like a cross between a tornado and neurotic albatross). She declares herself the child’s godmother, leaving when presented with a boy and not the girl she was demanding. It is a comic rollercoaster of a scene, tumultuous and culminating with Betsey exiting in high dudgeon. And so begins David’s life. 

Young David (Jairaj Varsani, a child performer of exceptional skill) has an idyllic childhood. He is loved by a doting mother (the delicate and sweet Morfydd Clark) and his even more attentive nursemaid Peggotty (genuine warmth and personal proverbs as played by Daisy May Cooper). The peace is shattered by his mother’s remarriage to Edward Murdstone (terrifying in Darren Boyd’s cold-eyed villainy). Murdstone’s abuse of David begins the cycle of flux that he will face for the rest of his life. He gains, then loses, then recovers, only to lose again.

Eschewing the boarding school section, David is banished to the blacking factory, sentenced to work in miserable conditions. This pivotal juncture is taken directly from the darkest chapter of Dickens’ childhood, one he kept secret his entire life. David boards with penurious Micawber (Peter Capaldi, artfully blending the kind and the con) and his ever-growing family. It seems that every time David meets up with the Micawber family, they have added a baby to the ever-expanding brood. 

Dev Patel and Morfydd Clark. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Micawber and his wife (bubbling and bug-eyed Bronagh Gallagher) are hunted and haunted by creditors, much like Dickens’s own father: Both the Micawbers and Dickens’ parents wound up in debtors’ prison. The Micawbers are Dickens’ gentle depiction of his parents, for whom he bore a life-long grudge due to his exile to the blacking factory. Later, Capaldi is pathetically outrageous as Micawber attempts — and fails — to teach a Latin lesson.

Unlike in the novel, the factory sequence shows David’s transition from boy to man. When Murdstone informs him of his mother’s death, David’s reaction is violent, more reminiscent of Nicholas Nickleby beating the schoolmaster than the always put-upon and long-suffering David Copperfield. Iannucci’s vision is self-actualized and capable of independence. 

David walks from London to Dover, seeking sanctuary with his Aunt Betsey. Even under duress, he aids Betsey’s lodger, the eccentric Mr. Dick (heart-breaking and hilarious Hugh Laurie, a man with the delusion that the decapitated King Charles I’s thoughts have been placed in his head). 

In the bosom of his remaining family, David thrives (for a while). There is romance and adventure, complications and resolutions. The film handles them with quick turns, ranging from near-slapstick to deep introspection. The narrative is rich in whimsy but doesn’t avoid the darkness. The characters retain the vivid character traits endowed by Dickens but are enriched with inner lives. 

David’s creativity is highlighted, even as a young child. He spins yarns and draws sketches, heralding the great writer. Like Dickens, he jots down unusual phrases and collects the people in his life, developing them in the mirror.

There is a meta-cinematic quality about the film, often breaking (and literally tearing) the fourth wall to allow the characters to observe or even flow into other scenes. The film’s colors are lush and rich, leaning towards childhood fantasy, but can quickly shift to somber shades. As a child, the seaside town of Yarmouth was a place of storybook magic; when David returns, it is a place of shadows.

In addition to the previously mentioned cast members, note should be made of Rosalind Eleazar, who makes the intolerably insipid Agnes Wickfield a strong, likable foil for the maturing David. Clark, who plays young David’s mother, Clara, doubles beautifully as David’s love interest Dora Spenlow — endearing, exhausting, and empty-headed. Uriah Heep, usually much oilier and damp in his “umble” sycophancy, is more dangerous in Ben Whishaw’s performance. Paul Whitehouse’s Mr. Peggotty is appropriately paternal; Benedict Wong brings tannic notes to the dissipated Mr. Wickfield. 

Whether it is colorblind or color-conscious, casting director Sarah Crowe has perfectly gathered an enormous, multi-racial company, flawless from Dev Patel’s dimensional, delightful David to Scampi, who plays Dora’s dog Jip.

While Iannucci takes liberties with much of the novel, most notably in the latter half’s rushed solution, this Copperfield celebrates the original by transcending it. The film culminates with a catharsis rooted in hope. Perhaps purists would lean towards the more complete and faithful 1999 version, but in the spirit and the sense of joy, the new David Copperfield is wholly satisfying.

Rated PG, the film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.