The Personal History of David Copperfield (Film Review)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Story: This adaptation of the Charles Dickens story "David Copperfield" centers on the title character (Dev Patel) as he recalls his life from birth and into adulthood, chronicling all his experiences and the colorful characters he meets along the way. 

Review:  Should I ever get the opportunity to be transported into the adaptation of one of Charles Dickens’ stories, my first choice would obviously be THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL. However, should Kermit and his pals be unavailable or legally barred by Disney from time traveling, then I would happily choose Armando Iannucci’s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD as a backup. In deviating from the typical take on the author’s work – and even the period genre altogether – Iannucci has crafted a fantastical, endlessly funny odyssey that sports one the finest ensembles of the year and is nothing short of marvelous to step into.

Fans of Iannucci’s past work (THE DEATH OF STALIN, IN THE LOOP, VEEP) know he has a bit of a knack for satirizing various political systems with a blend of vulgarity and silliness, and in turn, those skills make him a perfect choice to take on the task of bringing a fresh take on “Copperfield” to the screen. Telling the story of the young Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani) on his journey from the warm comforts of home with his mom (Morfydd Clark), to the confines of a bottle factory, and through the ups and downs of the English class system as an adult (Dev Patel), Iannucci dives headfirst into the satirical elements of the story and characters but then juices it up with a dose of madness that may throw viewers expecting nothing more than a decent helping of English wit for a loop.

Of course, leave it to Tilda Swinton to set that tone. After Patel’s Copperfield literally steps into his past to begin narrating the story while events are replayed in front of him, a manic, neurotic Swinton as Betsey Trotwood comes crashing into the moments leading up the man’s birth. Trading quick – yet refined – barbs with Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and his mother Clara, we see the imagination of the setup merge with the rapid-fire comedic dialogue and deliveries, showing an Iannucci both branching out of his expected zone (F-bombs and Cabinet members calling each other c**k*****rs) while losing none of the trademark humor (via a script co-written by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, and no doubt some improv). And even as that humor and energy very much dominate most of the movie from beginning to end, he never shies away from the early moments of wonder and warmth, such as young Copperfield’s days at Yarmouth inside a damn-near-magical boathouse.

A story about growth and Copperfield coming into his own as a man means encountering all sorts of people across his travels, and coming and going through a revolving door is a slew of colorful characters brought to life by some of the best actors from across the pond. Swinton is as much a scene-stealer as she always is, who pairs like a fine wine next to Hugh Laurie's Mr. Dick. How anyone couldn't beam with joy as Swinton screams "Donkeys!" as she aggressively shoos the animals off her property, or as Laurie screams "Kite!" with youthful gusto is beyond me. But with so much other great talents on screen, masters of subtle drama, and pitch-perfect comedic timing, there's never anyone on screen you can't be utterly charmed by. This is not surprising given the casts of Iannucci's other movie, like DEATH OF STALIN, and here, the likes of Peter CapaldiGwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, Ben WhishawRosalind Eleazar and Morfydd Clark (taking on dual roles wonderfully) are just a few names that make this one of the best ensembles we're likely to see all year.

In yet another role that cements him as a true leading man, Patel shines in his best work yet as Copperfield. Flowing hair and waistcoats for days that make him look destined for any number of swashbuckler roles, he is just so effortlessly likable in the role. He seamlessly hits the highs of the comedic lunacy, while never losing the humanity of the character who is constantly trying to move forward in his life, hoping that the traumas of where he's been aren't repeated in where he's going. He's a dreamer and writer who scribbles any funny line or thought on hundreds of pieces of paper scattered across wherever he's living. There's so much Patel has to accomplish from scene to scene in order to keep the story alive — whether it's being the one everyone is looking to for guidance or simply being the funny guy friends turn to for spot-on impressions — and he more than succeeds. 

For all the hilarious back-and-forths and equally impressive sight gags — not to mention the occasional use of some solid visual effects for more fantastical sequences — the film moves at a breakneck pace to get the most out of the several-hundred-page source material. As wonderful as it all is to take in from a performance and production/costume design standpoint, I can see some audiences feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer velocity of everything. Getting caught up in the adventure of the story means there's not a ton of time for more dramatic moments, which I can see leaving some wanting if they're craving an adaptation with a bit more weight. However, seriousness is not something lacking in other movies of the genre, so you can easily get that fix elsewhere. 

From start to finish, I had much more of a blast with this Dickens tale than I rightfully should have with most adaptations of 19th-century literature that I may or may not have made an effort to read in grade school. It's constantly hilarious, features a dozen fantastic performances, and breathes an impressive amount of imagination and escapism into this classic source material. Even if period films aren't often your go-to, I assure you, seeing Hugh Laurie with Einstein hair shouting "Kite!" is worth the watch alone. 


Viewer Ratings (0 reviews)

Add your rating


About the Author

3750 Articles Published