Charming ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Breathes Life into Classic Dickens Story (Review)

by | Aug 27, 2020

British literature can be a tough nut to crack when adapting for film or television. Stay too close or linear to the source material, and you risk tuning out your audience. Loosely adapt the source material, and you open a Pandora’s box; it may be inviting to change things around, but you risk tainting the legacy of the characters in the story and its author. Thankfully, The Personal History of David Copperfield is more than just a respectable adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  It is a refreshing adaptation from director (and co-writer) Armando Iannucci that is so full of charm that only an antagonist from one of Dickens’ classic stories would not like this film. You would be quite a Scrooge not to enjoy this movie from start to finish.

The Personal History of David Copperfield tells the story of the titular character’s life from a small boy to middle age. From the beginning, you can’t help but root for David Copperfield. The hardships that follow this character from a young age until he is all grown up have been a source of inspiration across generations for so many other literary characters that many of us grew up reading. While it certainly has its moments as a drama, it is also filled with joy and comedy that will make you burst out laughing. Tone for a story like this can be tricky, but Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell do a good job balancing it all as the story moves quickly from one setting to the next. Keeping this story fresh must have been challenging, and it could have turned out quite differently in the wrong hands. But here, there’s nothing to fear other than the creditors Copperfield’s friend Mr. Micawber is always trying to evade.

You won’t find many movies this year with an all-star cast as good as this ensemble. Leading the way as David Copperfield, Dev Patel is as delightful as ever here. Filled with charisma and pleasantry, Patel’s performance is among the best in his still young career. A number of characters Patel’s Copperfield encounters over the course of the movie also bring their A-game, no matter how big or small their screen times are. Some of the highlights or best encounters with Copperfield include Peter Capaldi and Bronah Gallagher as Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, and Aneurin Barnard as James Steerforth. You are sure to notice other actors from past roles (Hugh Laurie for example), but these characters and their performances are the ones to look out for because they are both funny (for the most part) and they help move the needle in this story and its lead character.  Oh, and lets not forget to mention that the costume design and score are A-plus thanks to designers Suzie Harman and Robert Worley and composer Christopher Willis.

While The Personal History of David Copperfield was filmed two years ago, it certainly evokes a feeling of the year 2020. Much like the life of David Copperfield, even when  we see him  knocked down, he gets back up and pushes on. And like 2020, we can view this character story as a see-saw of sorts. I’m sure many of us have experienced more ups and downs this year than we have ever before, but like David Copperfield, we’ll make it through. Without spoiling anything, the movie’s final moments are among my favorite from any movie this year. Not only does The Personal History of David Copperfield provide hope for what’s to come in the real world to someone like me, but I think it also should for anyone else who watches this movie and its timeless story. 

Rating: 4/5