Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019/20)

If there’s an adjective you don’t tend to associate with Armando Iannucci, it’s sincere. Witty and incisive, sure, but not sincere. But that’s the way he and regular co-writer Simon Blackwell play THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, Charles Dickens’ most personal of tales.

The remarkable story of a remarkable young man who has a remarkably inconsistent lot in life – David Copperfield (Dev Patel) seeks to make a name for himself, but it will not be an easy journey, even to keep the right to use his own name.

Following LITTLE WOMEN last year, this is another great adaptation that is a story about storytelling. Reality weaves in and out, David Copperfield living his life and telling his story with artistic embellishments aplenty. He is witness to his own birth, comments on key events of his life both bad and good as they pass by and actively edits his own story as he tells it.

What a lot of Dickens adaptations make the mistake of doing is sapping the story’s world of colour. Unless we’re talking a musical like OLIVER! brown and grey seems to be the order of the day. David Copperfield’s costumes by Suzie Harman and Robert Worley are brightly coloured, intricately detailed and well lived-in. There are little details to savor everywhere. Even the more muted colour palette used when David confronts some of the untruths in his life is more eye-catching than the majority of stories set in this period.

While it’s visually distinct from the usual Dickens adaptations, the big, exaggerated characters and all the go-to archetypes of Dickens are still all present, correct and unaltered. Good men trapped in a cruel world, beguiling manipulators, monstrous step-parents, good-natured fops and naive young women who are all but seventeen. If you’re a British Radio 4 comedy listener, it really won’t help if you’ve recently listened to Bleak Expectations because that loving spoof is only slightly exaggerated from Dickens’ page.

The ensemble are sublime across the board. Colour-blind casting has been in theatre for decades and it’s about time film, especially a committed theatrical film, made use of it. This is, after all, not professing to present reality but a reality. Dev Patel completely inhabits the lead role as an idealistic dreamer who nonetheless has to be tough and isn’t above sly manipulation and back-stabbing to further his own ends and to survive. Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard and Daisy May Cooper all impress, but it is Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi who really vie to steal the show with the former bringing pathos and nuance to the potentially ridiculous Mr Dick and the latter having the time of his life as the kind-hearted scoundrel Mr Micawber. Tilda Swinton doesn’t get any bonus points for turning up and being Tilda Swinton.

I would say the film does run a little on the long side – it’s a long-feeling two hours, perhaps due to the measured pacing or the sheer amount of ups and downs David is put through time and time again. I don’t know what you’d cut, though, and still stay true to the piece, but you may feel exhausted at the film’s close (uplifted, but exhausted).

I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing Iannucci and Blackwell try to adapt other works of classic literature. They clearly have an eye for it, making the most of inherently comic moments but not shying away from the dark or the tragic. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a refreshing new direction for Iannucci and a cracking, colourful and emotionally connected new take on Dickens. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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